A band, a bar, ballads

Steve Treacy, Theater Critic
Posted 6/13/17

Ready to rock? Key City Public Theatre's production of “Murder Ballad” is everything a “sexy, explosive new rock opera” should be.

The fast-paced musical by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash …

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A band, a bar, ballads

Posted

Ready to rock? Key City Public Theatre's production of “Murder Ballad” is everything a “sexy, explosive new rock opera” should be.

The fast-paced musical by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash revolves around Sara and the risks posed to her marriage when she dares to seek out her dangerous former lover. It's full of belted ballads, wild action and tormented love.

You become part of the rock opera ambiance as you scout for a seat at the theater: There are tiny tables close to the stage, some located stage left, or you can sit in the back.

Either way, you are clearly in a cabaret.

The set designer (artistic director Denise Winter) and head carpenter (Jim Guthrie) made these charming alterations to Key City’s décor.

The set designer herself even sells drinks before the show at her onstage bar with its beautiful countertop made of materials from Edensaw Woods. There is also this marvelous metal spiral staircase, a practical old pool table and an authentic “Budweiser” wall light.

The director (Winter) makes excellent use of each set piece, cultivating some wild and woolly action sequences. The fight choreographer (Tomoki Sage) makes those same actions even more breathtaking. The lighting designer (Albert Mendez) masterfully creates nice moods on stage, with reasonable tracking of any actors who may find themselves in the audience. The costume designer (Beverly Michaelsen) makes her bar denizens – including a steam-punk musician – interesting and believable. She adds nice contrasting wardrobes for the sedate married couple.

On opening night, a three-piece band opened with a solid rock guitarist (Micaela Kingslight), a flashy keyboardist (musical director Linda Dowdell) and a hard-driving drummer (John Reid). (Bass player Ian Coates, who would bring the band’s number to four, was absent for this performance, attending his high school graduation.)

The instrumentation works great for the many aggressive songs in this rock opera. When singers are not opera-trained and not using body microphones, trickier lyrics may get garbled. A band can compensate by soft-pedaling itself even more, especially during ballads. An insert of song titles can help barflies, who might not know rock opera, to focus more on the lyrics and keep up with a fast-moving story.

CHARACTERS

Narrator (Christa Holbrook) opens the show with brutal punk-rock belting that firmly establishes the dominant noir aspects of this “Frankie & Johnny” show. Her beehive hairdo is perfect for the part. She has vocal clarity in her narrations and gentler melodies for which she gets to use her sweet singing voice. She then hits one out of the park in “Clubs and Diamonds.”

Sara (Aba Kiser) rivets the audience with her relatively demure exterior and her tough inner choices. I even detected a few harmonies (a personal favorite) in some of her duets. Although her voice is bold enough throughout, one might swoon during her showstopping a cappella solo in “Coffee’s On.”

Tom (Dillon Porter) provides the look and acting chops for a gruff antihero. Like the Narrator, his aggressive singing is vital in setting the opening mood. He and Sara sing the infectious “Mouth Tattoo”: His “I’ll Be There” sung to and with Sara, may leave you, like Michael, in a pleasant tableau.

Michael (Greg Stone) provides us a stolid family role model with whom to identify. His strong voice with Sara helps sell an early duet, “Troubled Mind/Promises.” His solo “Sugar Cubes and Rock Salt” is likewise poignant. He brings appropriate vocal power to “You Belong to Me Reprise.”

Overall: On balance, I give the opening night of “Murder Ballad” four stars. With a little more focus on the clarity of the lyrics, my rating for the run of the show easily scoots up to five stars. The show runs through July 2, 2017 at Key City Playhouse, 419 Washington St., Port Townsend. Times, prices and tickets are available online at keycitypublictheatre.org or by calling 379-0195.

Port Townsend’s Steve Treacy is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

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