Skip the lobby and head for the alley out back. Show your ID and see whether your name’s on the list. Get your hand stamped and trek up the stairs to a rowdy bar on the fourth floor, because that’s where the action — um, make that the musical — is.
The theater crowd gets to slum it in a faux dive bar for “Murder Ballad,” a rock musical that mainly succeeds as an atmospheric exercise. Studio Theatre has reconfigured its flexible, rough Stage 4 into a working saloon — drinks, pool table and all. It’s a good setting for a sketchy musical, a flat song cycle involving four downtown New Yorkers whose hot passions lead one of them to murder.
Technically, director David Muse’s show works great. Brian MacDevitt’s production design is comprehensive: There is a small stage for a guitar-driven four-piece band and lots of low, funky light from neon beer signs and a creative mishmash of cheapo chandeliers. (Andrew Cissna is the lighting designer.) Music director Darren R. Cohen sees to it that the band is reasonably tight, and Ryan Rumery’s sound design always keeps the singers’ voices out front.
The writing is ordinary, though, in a show that doesn’t have as much edge as you’d think. The concept and book are by Julia Jordan, with music and lyrics by Juliana Nash (Jordan wrote lyrics, too), and at least their format is appealing. It opens with a narrator, played with guts and guile by Anastacia McCleskey, singing a tale of lusty romance between Sara (Christine Dwyer) and Tom (Cole Burden), high-energy night owls in fashionably torn clothing.
Dwyer is a slinky, sultry Sara — she’s ideal in the part, all appetite and remorse — and Burden has an indulgent swagger that gives Tom a hint of danger. No surprise that these characters quickly burn each other out, with Sara rebounding to a mild poet and scholar named Michael (a nicely level Tommar Wilson). Next thing you know, Sara is uptown with a kid. For a wild thing like her, can it last?
The Nash-Jordan score doesn’t put much tension in the dilemma. The music crunches along well enough in its rock-ish way, but it is not emotionally dynamic until the showdown at the end. The band is fine, and the voices are utterly sure, and if your sightlines are okay (the floor seating is crowded in spots) it’s easy to watch this confident cast snaking through the clutter of MacDevitt’s barroom, standing on the pool table or bar and belting out songs of fatal attraction and domestic frustration.
It’s played as one 80-minute song, a sung-through show with no applause breaks, and soon you feel a sameness in the rock ballad delivery and stasis in the uncomplicated love-and-betrayal plot.
After the setup, Jordan and Nash don’t have real tricks up their sleeves; they don’t even gin up much mystery about the promised murder. The show flirts with a higher gear but never kicks into it.
Cool hangout, though.
Conceived by and with book and lyrics by Julia Jordan, music and lyrics by Juliana Nash. Directed by David Muse. Orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Justin Levine. Costumes, Laree Lentz; set director, Andrew Cohen; movement director, Nancy Bannon. Through May 16 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets $45-$80. For more information, call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.