Throughout history there have been many songs
Written about the eternal triangle.
This next one tells the story of…
− “Tom Dooley,” The Kingston Trio (1958)
Dallas — “This next one.” There’s always a next one, another titillating tale of steamy sex, infidelity, betrayal, and the inevitable (often violent) comeuppance. We never seem to tire of it, whatever form it takes. “Tom Dooley,, a big hit for The Kingston Trio back in the 1950s and numerous artists since, tells such a tale, and is part of a grand tradition of songs detailing similarly violent death that have been picturesquely dubbed “murder ballads.” Murder ballads have been around in one form or another since the mid-17th century, starting in Europe and eventually wending their way across the pond to America. Generally, a murder ballad details the circumstances around a violent death—who is killed, who killed them, the method and location of the murder, and the aftermath, whether that be the murderer escaping, or being brought to justice; sometimes the story is told by an omniscient narrator, and sometimes the murderer tells his or her own version of the events. While their European incarnations tended to include supernatural elements, the American iterations tended toward more terrestrial explanations for violence: people, and the damage they do to one another, especially to the ones they love.
Putting a rock-and-roll spin on this fine old tradition comes Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s rock opera Murder Ballad, produced by Dallas’ fledgling Imprint Theatreworks in its regional premiere. The dark, steamy musical tells the story of a woman torn between her husband and her old lover, and the violence the infidelity unleashes on…someone. The show is pretty upfront about its endgame, laying it out in the opening number: someone will be dead by the end of the show. Who—and whodunit—remains just out of sight throughout the piece, always visible in the periphery, until the denouement, when it hits like a baseball bat to the head (foreshadowing, people).
It’s a testament to Imprint’s attention to detail that upon having your hand stamped and entering the tiny Margo Jones Theatre space in Fair Park, your first thought is, “I’ve totally been to this bar.” From the strings of lights hung haphazardly from the walls and ceilings, to the rockabilly/pin-up fabric tacked to the wall behind the band, to the cheeky food and drink specials scrawled on chalkboards above the bar, there’s an impressively lived-in feel to it all (kudos to scenic designer Ellen Mizener). The actors, too, contribute to the immersive experience of the show. Before the show the four cast members can be found onstage, enjoying the music from the show’s band (led by a charming Jamall Houston, who acts as lead singer and MC, with music direction by Adam C. Wright), milling around serving drinks and playing pool with audience members, who settle in with cocktails from the working onstage bar as the lights dim and the Narrator (Laura Lites) kicks off our story in earnest: “Listen, and I’ll tell a tale/One where good does not prevail.”
Wild child Sarah (Brett Warner) spends her nights getting trashed in downtown Manhattan dive bars, where she collides with Tom (Kyle Igneczi), a bartender with aspirations of eventual stardom as…something? Their drunken hook-up leads to a tempestuous on-again, off-again three year relationship until a final, vicious dumping by Tom drives Sarah away and into the arms of mild-mannered Michael (Aaron C. White), an NYU poetry professor with a bit of a white knight complex. Resisting Sarah’s drunken advances, he offers her an understanding shoulder and a safer option for romance. One thing leads to another, and before too long, the two marry, Michael goes corporate, and they and their five-year old daughter move into a two-bedroom on the Upper West Side (doorman included). But Sarah, who’s ditched the studded combat boots of her drinking days for the ballet flats and pink cropped cardigan of upper-middle class domesticity, begins to find herself longing for the good- bad old times with Tom. She gives him a call, they meet to have a drink and reminisce, he puts his hand on her knee, and pretty soon the two are having a torrid affair. But as their illicit romance continues, Tom becomes more and more possessive, until he threatens to destroy Sarah’s relationship with Michael. Finally, the points of the love triangle (quadrangle? I can say no more) clash in a bloody confrontation, leaving someone dead on the floor of a bar.
And what does it all amount to in the end? “It’s all entertainment,” sings the cast in the show’s final number, “’til it happens to you.”
Under the direction of Ashley H. White, the cast members give energetic and engaging performances, throwing themselves into the piece with gusto. Standout Brett Warner is at turns brash and vulnerable, grounding the show’s romantic entanglements with a real depth of emotion. Laura Lites’s brings a coal-black wit to her portrayal of the Narrator (who may share more connections with Sarah and her lovers than at first glance), who smolders and seethes throughout the show, her character interacting with the others for brief moments before she steps back to watch them spiral towards their fates. In the somewhat thankless role of “nice guy” Michael, Aaron C. White manages to imbue the role with at least a little edge, and a nicely realized sense of anguish as he feels his wife pulling away from their family. While bad boy Tom (appropriately sporting a look that can only be described as “2007 Hot Topic” chic—a tip of the hat to costume designer Jessie Wallace for conveying so much with only an inordinate number of rings) is a little thinly drawn on paper, Igneczi gives him a certain dodgy charm while still conveying a sense of violence underneath. If the songs are, overall, somewhat forgettable—there isn’t really any particular standout number—and the story as familiar as (let’s face it) every other Lifetime movie, the cast should be commended for doing everything in its power to overcome the limitations of the material and for succeeding as much as they do in creating a lively and spirited night at the theater.
In the end, it’s not a new story, the woman torn between two men, and the dreadful consequences that often result from such a scenario. It’s one of the oldest stories around. But we keep telling it, over and over, in countless iterations. Murder Ballad may not have anything particularly revolutionary to say on the topic, but clearly we’re all ready to eat these kind of stories—steamy sex and morality play rolled into one—up with a spoon.
Feel free to dig in.