At present, the West End Musical Theatre scene seems to be filled with either long running shows, big blockbusters for tourists or musicals adapted from films. For those seeking something a little bit different, I recommend you visit the Arts Theatre in London to see Murder Ballad. I was drawn to this musical for the chance to see the live of performances of West End legends Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo. However, to my delight, the show’s original music and smart staging elevated the experience to be something much more enjoyable than I expected.
The premise for this musical, for the most part, is not completely new. Its focus is on Sara (Kerry Ellis), a New Yorker who finds herself torn between her downtown lover Tom (Ramin Karimloo) and her uptown partner Michael (Norman Bowman). What is slightly new, is this haunting expectation from its title that a murder will take place, despite the fact that none of the characters have an obvious murder streak. All is revealed as the story heightens to a thrilling climax which left me in complete shock by the end.
The creative team utilised the relatively small venue to great effect. With the use of projections, select props and a turntable, they were able to create a collection of intimate and dark scenes. In one scene in Tom’s apartment for example, laundry is scattered on the floor and a single white mattress revolves on the inner circle of the turntable where Tom and Sara lie. This simple staging helps guide the audience to focus in on the performances and, like the narrator, you become a close observer into their reality.
The musical is completely sung through and works well. Typically in sung-through shows the lyrics risk becoming extended scenes of dialogue with a forced rhyme scheme. However the original indie/soft rock score progresses the story at a satisfying pace, while still fulfilling the need to reveal the characters’ inner thoughts and create the right atmosphere for the different scenes. I particularly liked the melody to ‘Promises’. In this song, Sarah is clearly bitter about her broken relationship with Tom but despite this she expresses an honest desire to start a new relationship with Michael. It has the same stinging feeling that you often get from listening to an Alanis Morissette tune. My only slight criticism of the live performance is that some parts were difficult to follow as I couldn’t make out some of the words.
The small cast brilliantly carried the one act show. Kerry Ellis delivered a standout yet subtle performance. Her effervescent and radiant stage presence made it difficult not to look at her in all her scenes. I also enjoyed Ramin Karimloo’s portrayal of the bad boy Tom. His muscular and tattooed exterior makes him an obvious fit for the character, however there is something gentle about his personality which adds an interesting dynamic. His performance grew stronger as he became more possessive and controlling over Sara. (This uncomfortable and creepy side instantly reminded me of his performance in the role of the Phantom in the Phantom of the Opera). The racy sexual scenes between Ramin and Kerry were tastefully choreographed so that even though there was nothing explicit, I still felt the passion and sexual energy between the pair.
The role of Narrator, played by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, is a tough one as she is onstage almost the entire time. Her performance is confident, yet nuanced which largely contrasts to the last time I saw her perform a comedic role in ‘In The Heights’. Norman Bowman, who I’ve not heard of before this show, is also perfectly suited to the role of nice and sensible Michael and his voice is fairly impressive.
For a contemporary musical, I think it does well to capture the complexities of love and how a breakdown in communication with your partner can send the mind and body lusting for something more. However for a contemporary show to truly grip me, I think there needs to be something a bit more daring or unique about its subject matter. This can often be a political commentary or a unique insight into the human psyche that isn’t often explored. A good example of this is the 90s musical Rent, despite its relatively weak story line, the show is revered by its ever growing fan base due to the way it captured the New York Bohemian culture and the impact of the Aids Epidemic just before the new Millennium. In Murder Ballad, I would have equally liked something a bit more to take away from the show. But perhaps that is just me being greedy.
In any case, I’m glad the producers took a risk on this show, if anything to encourage other producers to keep introducing more variety to the West End Musical Theatre landscape. For a Friday evening performance, it was a shame that the theatre wasn’t entirely full and I was upgraded from my seats which were restricted view to the centre of the Upper Circle. There was a mix of different Theatre-goers, but a noticeable percentage were there for Ramin Karimloo (and had already seen it more than once). Whether this show lives on in the UK beyond its limited run, ending in December 2016, will depend on how strong the word of mouth is.
See my On the Spot Review below (where I’m still slightly in shock about the finale):