BWW Reviews: TUTS Underground's MURDER BALLAD is Exhilarating and Sensual

By: Apr. 19, 2014
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Pat McRoberts as Michael, Lauren Molina as Sara,
Steel Burkhardt as Tom & Kristin Warren as Narrator

The World Premiere production of MURDER BALLAD at Manhattan Theatre Club's The Studio at Stage II took New York by storm in the fall of 2012. In May 2013 it transferred to the Union Square Theatre and played 17 previews and 70 regular performances before closing on July 21. Now, Houston's own TUTS Underground is producing the National Regional Premiere of the exhilarating, crowd-pleasing musical, and this sultry tale of love, passion, and murder is simply too good to miss.

Like the season opener LIZZIE, the intimate MURDER BALLAD utilizes a cast of four and is mostly sung-through. In the opening number, the Narrator descends a spiral staircase into the performance space and tells us she will guide us through "a tale in which good does not prevail." In the quickly paced 80 minutes that follow, audiences are treated to a story where downtown Sara cashes in her chips, marries, and becomes an Upper West Sider. Yet, her enticing and dangerous downtown past haunts her. She gives in to temptation, forging an explosive love triangle with murderous consequences.

Conceived by book and lyric writer Julia Jordon and featuring music and lyrics by Juliana Nash, the writing for MURDER BALLAD is fresh and original. Musically, the score pulls inspiration from the pop-rock sounds of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, pairing nicely with the opening sound effect of a jukebox whirring to life and the subsequent scratch of a needle across a record. With an appealing and catchy rock edge, the lyrics use subtle metaphor and in-your-face effrontery that the audience can't help but vocally react to, especially during the Central Park confrontation scene.

Choreography by Michelle Gaudette pristinely matches the tone of the show, masterfully and purposefully conveying an element of angst and restlessness. Her brilliant signature of percussive movements (i.e. stomps and table slaps) adds a rich and distinctive sound to this production. Additionally, she has created a different visual aesthetic for each of the characters in their movements. The Narrator is a free spirit, dipping and swaying her hips with suggestive, sensual energy. Sara rocks with a bohemian edge. Tom's dances and movements are cocky, confident, and exude a sexy masculinity. Michael is more restrained, but when he lets loose he has a sporadic flair like a spark dropped into a powder keg.

Likewise, Direction by Theatre Under the Stars' Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin pulls the audience into the sizzling and steamy production with ease. He has coached his cast to create four tangibly real and interesting characters. For this production, more is spoken than what we hear on the World Premiere Cast Recording, which makes Bruce Lumpkin's take on these characters all the more relatable. The keen sense of timing he brings to this production makes the audience feel as if we are watching reality unfold, and the audience is relieved when the finale reminds us that MURDER BALLAD is only entertainment, until it happens to you.

Kristin Warren as Narrator.

From the smoky opening notes, Houston actress Kristin Warren owns the evening as the feisty Narrator. In a see-through black tank top, a vividly red bra, cut-off shorts, and black leather boots, her character is visually titillating while conveying an air of provocative danger. Complete with razor sharp edges, Kristin Warren creates a character that leaves the audience spellbound. While relating this tale of passion, love, and lust gone wrong, she swills her Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey and takes some shots of Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Her character visibly grows more inebriated as the plot thickens, but we can't help but listen to her and even trust her because she reminds us of her omniscient skills with lines like, "I can say 'cause I was there, love and war are never fair."

Playing Sara, Lauren Molina creates a character who seizes opportunity without thinking about its repercussions. Heartbroken, she leaves Tom and her downtown life on a whim when she bumps into Michael, a NYU professor with a Ph.D. in Poetry. Despite a happy marriage and a beautiful child with Michael, she starts an affair with Tom. Caught in between two men that love her, Lauren Molina's Sara deftly damages herself and her relationships. Lauren Molina capably illustrates how restrained Sara felt by her Upper West Side life, how free and sexual she feels with Tom, and how she fissures in a Jekyll & Hyde-esque way under the pressure of sleeping with the markedly different men.

Steel Burkhardt as Tom & Lauren Molina as Sara.

As Tom, Steel Burkhardt radiates masculine charm and confidence. With the handsome aesthetic that Hollywood adores, he easily makes the women in the show and in the audience swoon. Whispering seductively in Sara's ears and kissing her neck, he is sensual and sexy in all the right ways. However, his darkness shines through as he becomes more and more obsessive. He turns her sweetly sung ode into a threat, as he reprises "You're brighter than the sun/ And I revolve around you." Earlier, he bellows, "You belong to me/ And I'll never let you go!" Steel Burkhardt makes sure the audience knows that Tom's passion comes with tightly wound ropes and chains, making Tom a beguiling and ultimately inescapable dark horse.

Lauren Molina as Sara & Pat McRoberts as Michael.

Sara's safe option Michael is smartly played by Pat McRoberts. For a majority of the show he is sweet and low-key. He appears to be the antithesis to everything Tom is; however, Pat McRoberts subtly shows us how swiftly protective his Michael is of Sara and his family. As he becomes more and more provoked by Sara's weird behaviors, he shifts gradually from the unassuming "man in disguise" he once was. After the volatile confrontation in Central Park between Tom, Sara, and himself, Pat McRoberts comes to life with fury and vengeance as he masterfully wails, "I want to watch them bleed!" Coming into his own, the audience is excited and moved by his anger, and we wait with bated breath to see how everything will end.

Vocally, the entire cast is impressive. Whether owning solos or blending smoothly with one another, they sing, belt, and rock out with precision and dexterity. Kristin Warren's alto notes fill Zilkha Hall and mesmerize us. Lauren Molina's soprano shines and sparkles with emotionality. Steel Burkhardt's lyric baritone and deep bass register are passionate and haunting. Pat McRoberts' tenor runs the gamut from sweet to electrifying.

Entering Zilhka Hall, Laura Fine Hawkes' phenomenal Sceneic Design instantly transports audiences to Tom's King's Club. The bar set spills off the stage and into the seating area, giving the production an impressive immersive quality that Michelle Gaudette's Choreography and Bruce Lumpkin's Direction takes full advantage of.

Lighting Design by Christina R. Giannelli matches the tone and mood of the show with evocative color washes. As the set is designed to look like a bar, she uses clever window-like gobos to transport us to Sara and Michael's apartment when necessary, but most of her work captures the dark ambience of production. Moreover, as the company is visibly present for the entirety of the show, she purposefully shifts the audience's focus with cues that move our eyes to every important scene.

Costume Design by Ray Delle Robbins gives each character his or her own distinctive look that is mirrored by Michelle Gaudette's choreography.

Andrew Harper's Sound Design uses well timed and nicely constructed sound effects to chill and thrill audiences in key moments during the show.

Still in its inaugural season, TUTS Underground is consistently proving to be a theatrical force that Houston cherishes. In that vein, it is no surprise that last night's audience for MURDER BALLAD jumped to their feet and gave a rousing standing ovation to commemorate a performance that did everything it was supposed to. This catchy cautionary tale is one you'll want to see more than once, but tickets are going fast. This run must end next weekend on April 27, 2014, so don't waste time, or you might find yourself on the wrong end of the bloody bat.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.

The National Regional Premiere of MURDER BALLAD, produced by TUTS Underground, runs at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 now through April 27, 2014. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For more information, and tickets please visit or call (713) 558-TUTS (8887).

Photos by Christian Brown. Courtesy of TUTS Underground.

Lauren Molina as Sara.

Kristin Warren as Narrator.

Lauren Molina as Sara & Pat McRoberts as Michael.

Steel Burkhardt as Tom & Lauren Molina as Sara.

Kristin Warren as Narrator & Pat McRoberts as Michael.

Steel Burkhardt as Tom & Lauren Molina as Sara.

Steel Burkhardt as Tom.

Kristin Warren as Narrator.

Lauren Molina as Sara & Steel Burkhardt as Tom.

Lauren Molina as Sara & Steel Burkhardt as Tom.

Pat McRoberts as Michael, Lauren Molina as Sara, Steel Burkhardt as Tom & Kristin Warren as Narrator.