Murder Ballad Delivers Deadly, Delicious Entertainment at Actors' Playhouse

Proper protocol dictates that when reviewing a murder mystery, one shouldn't give away the ending. We won't, but suffice it to say that when it involves a love triangle and only four principle characters, someone is going to pay for their indiscretions. Consequently, that's the least shocking aspect of Murder Ballad, the new off-Broadway rock musical being presented at the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre now through November 2. Frankly, this may be one of the most original and entertaining offerings Actors' Playhouse has ever presented, and considering the theater's 27-year history, that's saying really saying something.

The usual accolades can be called upon for inclusion here -- "sexy," "seductive," and in this case, "superlative," but in fact, those adjectives only begin to describe this intimate encounter. The first thing that strikes the audience on entering Actors' Playhouse Balcony Theater is the stunning set by Gene Seyffer. The upstairs theater's usual standard seating has been totally uprooted, with the entire space transformed into an expansive recreation of a Greenwich Village tavern, complete with vintage wall decor, a working bar, guest tables, and a pool table. Although the action shifts in time and setting, the placement of the tables and many of the seats in the midst of the onstage activity immerses the audience in the play and gives the actors unbounded opportunity to interact with onlookers as well.

See also: Carbonell Award Nominations Honor Actors' Playhouse, GableStage

Notably, Murder Ballad offers no dialogue, per se, given that the action depends entirely on the show's original songs, written by Juliana Nash and Julia Jordan. This requires the audience to listen intently throughout. Likewise, because the action moves at such a brisk pace and there's no set change, some of the nuances of the plot might be lost if one's attention isn't fully focused.

Fortunately, the songs are uniformly compelling and serve a much better purpose than merely moving the story along. Thankfully too, the lean but capable four-piece band under the direction of Eric Alsford is also adept, neither too showy nor too subdued when it comes to giving the score its due.

As for the plot itself, it's somewhat simple: Sara (Blythe Gruda) ends her relationship with a free-spirited New York barkeeper named Tom (Chris Crawford) and decides to better herself by moving uptown. That leads to a desperate encounter with an upwardly bound stranger named Michael (Mark Sanders), and, by chance or design -- we're not sure which -- the two fall in love, marry, and make a family. Nevertheless, Sara's past comes back to haunt her, leading to a tumultuous encounter between the two lovers in her life, past and present.

As the action accelerates and builds to a crescendo, the bigger role played by the otherwise anonymous narrator (Miami homegirl Mariand Torres) becomes clearer, and the audience is swept along by the vibrant and often venomous scenario that develops along the way.

Gruda, Crawford, Sanders, and Torres are all accomplished singers, as good, in fact, as any to be found in any musical, on Broadway or off. Torres is especially magnificent, with a voice that can wail with anguish or emote as needed to guide the developments along. Artistic director David Arisco, whose diversity and daring when it comes to tackling new works is a marvel in itself -- again rises to the challenge of overseeing what could otherwise have been a calamity of confusion and missed and muddled cues. It's evident once again that Actors' Playhouse is indeed fortunate to have him and, that he, in turn, is also blessed to have the theater's palate of presentations to work with.

An astute blend of passion and purpose, Murder Ballad seems destined to be tapped for any number of Carbonells -- the South Florida annual theater awards -- and for good reason. Actor's Playhouse has evolved with excellence over the course of those 27 years -- it's now Miami-Dade's No. 3 arts institution, as executive director Barbara Stein pointed out in her welcoming remarks. Persistence can pay off, and it's paid off with dividends here. Murder Ballad is brilliant, and for anyone at all who enjoys theater, music, or simply a good show, it ought not to be missed.

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Lee Zimmerman