Sing a Song of Death

This is the story of Sara.  Sara was kind of a wild child who dated a bad boy bartender named Tom.  One day, Sara tires of Tom and meets Michael who is kind, stable, and safe.  Sara and Michael marry.  After a few years, Sara yearns for her former life and contacts Tom and that’s when things take a turn.  This is Murder Ballad, a rock opera written and with lyrics by Julia Jordan with music and lyrics by Juliana Nash and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I could make this the quickest review in history and just say it’s phenomenal.  Go see it.

But you’d probably like to know a little more.

While I was intrigued by the plot of this play, little did I know I would end up watching one of the 5 best shows ever produced at the Playhouse.  Ms Jordan has written a tight, crisp story full of little twists and tragedies and Ms Nash’s music is one of the best musical soundtracks I have ever had the pleasure to hear.

The direction of Jeff Horger is utterly beyond reproach.  The energy of his actors never wanes and his staging is impeccable with his performers never taking a static moment and making use of the entire theatre for their movements.  Horger has also guided his thespians to universally marvelous performances with each actor not only being a top flight singer, but possessed of the ability to act through the songs of this opera.

The highest compliment I can pay to Leanne Hill Carlson’s portrayal of Sara is that I felt not one ounce of sympathy for her.  Zip.  Nada.  Zero.  Ms Hill Carlson has complete mastery of her character as she neatly travels the labyrinth of Sara’s arc.

She begins as the party girl living a vapid existence of partying and sex with Tom.  Then she longs for something of substance and meets Michael.  She seems quite content with a life of domesticity, but still has the appetites of her previous life to which she all too readily succumbs. The guilt of her poor choices clearly weighs on her shoulders, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her with her tendency to jerk around both men in her life.

Ms Hill Carlson also has a terrific higher alto/lower soprano voice with which she emotes the heck out of her songs.  From a bit of sultriness when she tries to seduce Michael when she first meets him, to her boredom of family life, to her regrets at her lousy decisions, Ms Hill Carlson was just a joy to listen to.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character I wanted to put my arm around and buck up more than John E. Jones’ Michael.  Jones has a sweet and haunting tenor voice that added such an emotional purity to his characterization of Michael.  His portrayal of Michael was so full of decency and goodness that I felt my heart drop when Sara began cheating on him and he still sang about how much he loved her and wanted to fix whatever was wrong with their marriage.

But watch out when he learns the truth of his wife’s liaisons.  Then Jones is perfectly believable with his righteous anger at being cuckolded and his determination for vengeance against Tom.

Thomas Gjere’s Tom is a most complex character, indeed.  What I liked most about Tom was that he truly was the reverse of Michael.  Where Michael was all about stability, Tom is instability at its peak.  He begins as being not too bad of a person except for his lust for Sara and I actually felt sympathy for him when he was still toiling away as a bartender regretting not fighting for Sara when she left him.

But that decency rapidly vanishes when he engages in a tawdry affair with a now married Sara and becomes quite the obsessed stalker oozing danger and menace as he darkly tells Sara she belongs to him.  Like Jones, Gjere also has a fantastic tenor voice but he makes certain to mine it for all the malevolence of which it’s capable.

Last, but certainly not least, is Mackenzie Dehmer who makes a stunning debut at the Playhouse with her role of the Narrator.  Trust me, Ms Dehmer is no mere storyteller.  Her Narrator is an integral part of this play as she involves herself in the lives of these characters.  I found myself often watching her just to see her reactions to the events swirling around her.  Ms Dehmer’s Narrator is a pretty dark character, often seeming to enjoy the chaos going on around her, yet seems to have a soft spot for Michael’s plight.  Ms Dehmer also has a powerful alto as she belted out her numbers and her movements were so lithe and smooth.

Technically this show was also a perfect ten.  Jim Othuse has turned the Howard Drew into a perfect dive bar while Darin Kuehler’s properties complete the picture.  And, believe it or not, the audience can order drinks from the bar and play billiards and pinball before the show starts.  Chris Wood’s lighting design was brilliant as his lights transformed with the emotional beats ranging from a sad blue to a hostile red.  Amanda Fehlner costumed her actors precisely to their personalities from Michael’s white collar nature to Tom’s blue collar dangerousness to Sara’s seductiveness and finally to the Narrator’s fun, but dark essence.  Doran Schmidt and her house band rocked all night long.

This is a truly can’t miss spectacle.  In fact, I liked it so much I just may go see it again.  If you want to see a well sung story with compelling characters, you must see Murder Ballad.  It’s the most original and rewarding play produced in years.

Murder Ballad plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through November 20.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $42 for adults and $25 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to some strong language and adult situations, Murder Ballad is not suitable for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

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