Music Theatre of Madison slays it hard in ‘Murder Ballad’

Troupe's latest show is a riveting heartbreaker
Music Theatre of Madison slays it hard in ‘Murder Ballad’
Photo by Julia Luebke
Tom (Andrew Lonsdale) and Sara (Hannah Ripp-Dieter) give in to desire as the Narrator (Amanda Rodriguez) looks on in the background.

So there’s a love triangle, and somebody ends up dead.

The postcard version of Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s 2012 rock musical sounds so simple, just another spin on that blood-soaked tale that’s, you know, as old as time. Music Theatre of Madison’s production (playing through this weekend in the Brink Lounge) shows us it’s something far, far more affecting. In the hands of MTM’s lean and very talented cast, it straps you in emotionally and doesn’t let you go–even when the speed picks up and the brick wall’s just inches away.

Jordan and Nash’s book carefully keeps the three legs of this doomed love triangle–wild-girl Sara (Hannah Ripp-Dieter), rough and tumble bartender Tom (Andrew Lonsdale) and smart, standup guy Michael (Sean Anthony Jackson)–out of easy pigeonholes. For instance, you’d expect Tom’s aggressive ways would be what drives Sara away, but not so: He’s the one that asks her to consider whether she’s ready to commit to a lifetime with him (Hint: She’s not.) Michael, the beneficiary of that breakup, never expects to find his poetic, intellectual soul buried beneath the drudgery of nine-to-five and parenthood.

Director Meghan Randolph’s four-person cast is both rock-solid and beautifully matched. Ripp-Dieter–playing the role Karen Olivo rocked in the show’s off-Broadway debut–is the most effective at inhibiting her character, constantly tormented by an elusive sense of satisfaction and destructive self-doubt. Her rendition of “Coffee’s On,” the song where Sara first begins to feel the effects of her depression and longing, is flat-out heartbreaking. “You start each day anew,” she sings from the bed to Michael, who’s offstage doing the dad thing. “As if it were so simple/I guess it is, for you.” You might hate her for going back to Tom, but you’ll never be able to say you don’t understand why she did it.

Amanda Rodriguez, the cast’s fourth member, is flat-out amazing as the narrator, who trails and hovers above the action throughout the show. Waiflike in ripped shorts and wielding a bloody baseball bat that’s eventually used by one of the characters to kill one of the others, Rodriguez sells every line she sings with powerful, dramatic flair and facial expressions that draw the entire room immediately into the fray. She uses his gorgeous voice to both command attention and anchor the show.

As a performance venue, the Brink Lounge, as usual, giveth and taketh away. Randolph has done her best to take advantage of the Brink’s cabaret-like intimacy. It’s unquestionably clever, for instance, to have the cast members move through the audience at the start of the show, lighting each tabletop candle as Rodriguez’s narrator sings the line, “We light a match/it starts from a spark.” And the space’s elegant balustrade serves nicely as a representation of the upscale life Michael tries to give Sara–he’s literally raising her up from her wild-girl past. But those four posts bracketing the main floor necessitate some neck-craning by audience members who aren’t camped right at the stage edges. That said, this show wouldn’t have worked as effectively in the Play Circle, MTM’s other usual venue.

The show’s songbook bounces between rock and ballads, with lyrics seared by aching, clever couplets (“Don’t ask how long/we’re built for longing/’cause every answer’s wrong.”) that the cast delivers with serious emotional depth. Over the course of the show’s 80 minutes, MTM’s “Murder Ballad” will break your heart–and then break it again. And you’ll relish every minute of it.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.