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Murder Ballad starring Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo review at Arts Theatre – ‘a stunning cast’

Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo in Murder Ballad at the Arts Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo in Murder Ballad at the Arts Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Like American Idiot – which has played two successful seasons at the Arts Theatre on either side of an extensive national tour – Murder Ballad is a pumped-up new American rock opera. Though it contains rather less nihilistic rage and features an original score rather than being based on an existing album catalogue.

Murder Ballad feels closer to Jonathan Larson’s Rent, with its regular references to the landscape of New York City. It focusses on yet another intense series of dysfunctional contemporary relationships. “Losing’s easy, winning’s hard,” sings Sara, torn between former bad-boy partner Tom (“the king of Downtown”, who runs a bar on Spring and Lafayette) and the new relationship she has moved on to with the more conventional, loyal Michael, with whom she has a child and now lives on the swanky Upper West Side.

The original Off-Broadway production at Manhattan Theatre Club’s studio space was staged in-the-round and brought the audience into close-up focus with its raw, exposed, needy passions. On an elevated stage at the Arts, it feels more distant.

This staging is also a lot more physically explicit, with Ramin Karimloo’s Tom not once but twice going shirtless while Kerry Ellis’ Sara wears a black negligee. It ups the raunch stakes considerably. Meanwhile, Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s score pulses and throbs with desire and passion.

Given the show’s title, it’s obvious where it’s all heading – but the dream cast of four ferociously good leads keep it consistently interesting. Karimloo has a raw, animalistic energy, his pumped-up physique is matched by an expressively powerful voice. Ellis also uses that peerless rock voice to elevate her songs into a different dimension.

The more passive character of Michael is made more interesting than he has been written by the wonderful Norman Bowman, who has an actorly authority and fills in the unspoken edges of the character, while also having a powerful voice in his own right. It is all held together with a spellbinding aura of mystery and intrigue by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as the narrator.

Director Sam Yates and his designer Richard Kent give it an appropriately slick and edgy sheen. The video work of Laura Perrett on a wall of screens at the back of the stage sometimes provides an over-literal commentary. Occasionally these lift to reveal members of Sean Green’s four piece band, from which the guitarists sometimes emerge to appear on stage.

In a musical theatre world where few female writers get an airing, Jordan and Nash have joined a small club that also currently features Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots), Sara Bareilles (Waitress) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home). They have earned their place in that company.

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Short, stylish rock musical elevated by a stunning star cast