The hippest new bar on 14th Street is in an unlikely, unmarked location — specifically, the fourth floor of Studio Theatre, with access through the back door off the alley.
Stage 4 is a dive-esque space full of posters, graffiti and shelves of booze, created, pop-up-style, for the sole purpose of staging the Off-Broadway rock musical Murder Ballad. It’s a gimmick to lure in new theatergoers as well as to spice up the experience for Studio subscribers — and it seems to be working, with sold-out shows in a run that’s already been extended. As well it should: Writer Julia Jordan and composer-lyricist Juliana Nash’s musical is an entertaining, sung-through show, and Studio’s David Muse has transformed it into an ingeniously devised, immersive production with an exceptionally strong cast of singers.
The narrative focuses on Sara (Christine Dwyer), who is cheating on her studious husband Michael (Tommar Wilson) by spending afternoons with an old flame, hunky bad boy bartender Tom (Cole Burden). From the outset, a narrator (Anastacia McCleskey) explains the reason for the show’s title: “someone has to die.” But we don’t know who — nor who’s offing whom — and there’s reasons to believe any one of them could be either culprit or victim. That makes Murder Ballad an intriguing whodunit, but it becomes even more stirring and suspenseful because it unfolds among the crowd, seated at cabaret tables and on barstools throughout the space. The singers come and go from three different directions, and make love — and fight — on and around the long bar top, the center pool table, or on the small stage in the back where a four-piece rock band is situated.
The setting is identified as ’90s-era Manhattan — it’s too bad Muse didn’t work with Nash to make the subtle lyric changes needed to translate this production for a local audience, setting it in present-day D.C. But that’s a minor quibble with a production that ultimately transcends its gimmicky appeal to be a show and a concept worth toasting.
Murder Ballad () runs to May 17 at Studio Theatre, 14th and P Streets NW. Tickets are $45 to $80. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.
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