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“Murder Ballad” continues high quality collaboration between BW and PhSquare

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

PlayhouseSquare and Baldwin Wallace’s renowned music theatre program and the school’s arts management program, have come together for seven consecutive years to present an opportunity for the students to interact with professional theatrical figures in a real world unique way.

The theatre students get an opportunity to work in the second largest arts complex in the country.  The arts management students get to collaborate with the PhSq professional market wizards.   What better educational experience could a student ask for?

This year the theatrical production moved from the cramped space, formerly known as the 14th Street Theatre, to the Allen complex’s Helen Stage.  The Helen is a black box facility which allows for as many configurations as the mind can conceive.  For MURDER BALLAD, the audience was partially seated three-quarters of the way around a rectangular performance area.  The remaining patrons were seated at tables.  Against one walls the band was placed.  A pool table and a long bar were intermingled among the tables.  The design of the theatre space made the performance appropriately up-tight and personal.

MURDER BALLAD is a “sexy and dangerous” rock musical which played a five-week limited engagement in 2012 off-Broadway.  Reviewers called it, “hot and sweaty,” “energetic and intriguing,” “rough and ragged,“ “sexy and explosive,” and “sultry.”  In spite of generally positive reviews, the preview run ended earlier than scheduled.

The story centers on a love triangle gone wrong.  Sara, an Upper West Sider seems to have it all…handsome and devoted husband, a healthy child, and a life of luxury.  Unfortunately, she can’t rid herself of her desire for bad-boy bartender, Tom.

We luxuriate in a strong musical score, listening to such melodies as “Troubled Minds,” “Turning into Beautiful,” “Mouth Tattoo,” “My Name,” “Built for Longing,” and “You Belong to Me,” as the plot leads us through the complications of love, the compromises that people make in the name of amour, and the betrayals that love can generate in people, while undoing them.

“Murder Ballad,” is the type of script that Victoria Bussert directs so well.  It requires creative staging, a fine sense of story development, and a talented cast.  Bussert is more than capable of the former duo, and has a treasure trove of “Vickie’s Kids”—the musical theatre students at Baldwin Wallace University.  As a survey of Broadway casts over the recent years proves, she picks,  trains and sends out the cream of the crop.

The four performance run of “Murder Ballad” showcased two different casts.  I only saw the “Spades” cast, so my comments will be narrowed to their performances.  What wonderful performances they were!  I can say, however, that I have it from a “knowledgeable source,” who was seated next to me at Moko Café between the two Saturday shows, that the “Clubs” cast was, ”also good.”

The role of Michael, Sara’s husband, was portrayed by tall and matinee idol handsome Anthony Sagaria.  He’s much in the mold of Strongsville High and BW grad, Corey Mach, who recently was in town playing the lead role in “Flashdance.”  He has a strong singing voice, excellent stage presence and good acting chops.  His duet, “I’ll Be There,” with Narrator Nyla Watson, was one of the show’s highlights.

Watson, of powerful voice and imposing presence, controls the stage when she is belting!  She had some wonderful comic asides that added needed light moments to the heavy theme.

I would not like to meet Zachary Adkins, Tom, the bartender, in an alley.  At least not the Adkins who made Tom and his menacing baseball bat into a potential weapon of mass destruction.  He displayed a nice singing voice and developed a clear character.

Keri René Fuller, a red haired vixen, populated the role of Sara.  Sensual, sexy and seductive, she had both characters, Tom and Michael, wrapped around her little finger.

Musical Director and BW student Andrew Leslie Cooper, and his band nicely walked the musical line between the needed rock intensity and underscoring the singers.  Special kudos to Jesse Stephen Penfound, the percussionist, for realizing that this wasn’t a rock concert and a very heavy foot and pounding hands weren’t necessary to get the needed effect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT”  It’s no wonder that Bussert commented in the program that “she loves her job!”  Being able to unearth the right script, to  put her unique touch on a production, and having a dream team of talented students to work with, would make anyone happy to go to work.  Standing “O” to all connected with ‘Murder Ballad.”  My only regret was that the show only ran four performances.  It could have developed a cult following and run for a long time!  Oh well, there’s the PhSq/BW production to look forward to next year!

“MURDER BALLAD” ran April 25th through the 27th, 2014.