Review: Detroit Public Theatre's Murder Ballad Slays


Murder Ballad

Murder Ballad hits it off with audiences.

The Detroit Public Theatre hit the ground running less than a year ago, after the vision of creators Courtney Burkett and Sarah Winkler finally came to fruition. The DPT shares its home with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in the Max M. Fischer Music Center in the heart of Midtown. Now in their second season, the DPT offers audiences four new plays, all new to Michigan and all, the company believes, relevant to Detroit audiences. The first of these, running from September 28 to October 23 and directed by Burkett, is Murder Ballad, a rock musical about love, lust, rage, passion, obsession, and jealousy that got its start at the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club.

Described as “a dark thriller with a razor’s edge,” the musical stars Arianna Bergamaschi as Sara, a broken-hearted New Yorker trying to rebuild her life, only to have her former love, Tom (Rusty Mewha, a current Resident Artist at the Purple Rose Theatre) continue to haunt her dreams and ultimately, her reality.

The play opens ominously: as the audience takes their seats in the small Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Hall where the DPT shows take place, a single spotlight shines down on a pool table at the center of the room with a baseball bat lying across it. A live band, comprised of Shawn Neal on drums, Mike Shriver on bass, and Jeff Sufamosto on guitar, is set up at the back of the stage and starts the show off with a crash of rock music. It’s great fun to see the band throughout the whole show, and they offer a dramatic backdrop to the scenery in the foreground.

The main conflict takes place quickly: Sara and Tom are in love (demonstrated by a series of sexy scenes where they crawl around on top of a bar and a pool table), but he breaks her heart. Stumbling home drunk and devastated, Sara meets Michael (Eric Gutman), who comforts her and the two eventually marry and have a child (This child, “Frankie” is invisible throughout the play, although the characters engage with it frequently, which is mildly off-putting.). Sara can’t get Tom off her mind though, and the two reconnect years later with disastrous results. Hint: the baseball bat makes a reappearance.

The highlight of the show is actually the nameless Narrator, played by Arielle Crosby, who takes audiences breath away with her hugely powerful voice. Fed up with all the other characters, she alternately encourages and discourages their actions through song and movement, wielding the baseball bat as a prop, although the others rarely interact with her. Bergamaschi also has a strong voice, although her attempts to mask her native Italian accent seemed ill-advised, as they somewhat affect her ability to sing to her full potential and it would not have detracted from the show for her character to have a non-American accent.

Overall, Murder Ballad is a fun performance to watch despite its somewhat predictable storyline and a lack of truly memorable music. The excellent set design and choreography keep the show moving, and the buildup to the climax of the show is well-executed, with everything concluding in a neat 75 minutes. And of course, who doesn’t love a little murder, passion and rock’n’roll?

Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library who only likes to use baseball bats to play baseball.

Murder Ballad runs from September 28-October 23, 2016 at the Detroit Public Theatre in Detroit. Tickets and more information are available at their website. DPT's second season will continue with Dot, running November 16-December 11, 2016, The Holler Sessions, running February 1-26, 2017 and The Harassment of Iris Malloy, running May 3-28, 2017.