Every couple of years, Actors’ Playhouse — home of the mainstream musical — mounts an edgy modern work that nourishes the creative soul of artistic director David Arisco and the theater’s more adventurous patrons.
And each time, such as next to normal and Floyd Collins, it results in don’t-miss theater for those who yearn for something with more red meat and more thought than revivals that the audience can already sing along with.
Add to that list this production of the off-Broadway cult rock opera Murder Ballad, which mixes love, lust and loss in a fatal triangle as old as mankind but as current as last week’s tabloid.
The frisson is ramped up because the action is staged in and around the audience in an auditorium transformed into a nightclub, an experiment in “immersive theater.” Actors leap atop a bar and pool table, hungrily groping, frantically coupling and swinging fists inches from some of the paying guests.
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But that’s just an extra topspin on what makes this one of the most exciting productions among Actors’ Playhouse’s 27 seasons.
Mercilessly insightful lyrics about a doomed search for self-validating love and excoriating driving music are delivered with courageous abandon by a quartet of musical theater actors whipped on by Arisco at his best.
Narrated by a sardonic bartender (Mariand Torres), the story follows Sara (Blythe Gruda), a downtown girl deep into a volcanically sexual affair with another bartender Tom (Chris Crawford). Their bond seems unshakeable but both are wounded creatures. Two years later, Sara breaks it off in a complex swirl of emotions and rationales.
Sara settles down with the well-off uptown Michael (Mark Sanders), a nurturing slightly older academic. But the seemingly perfect life cannot fill the congenital hole in Sara’s psyche. She takes up again with Tom, even as she agonizingly tries to maintain her marriage to Michael. It’s not a spoiler to say that someone is killed – but the audience is kept guessing who will be the murderer and who will be the victim.
The muscular music by indie rock singer/songwriter Juliana Nash is its own animal, but it does echo Rent, Spring Awakening and next to normal. Julia Jordan’s lyrics have a razor incisiveness about human frailty with such phrases as people being as “heartless as a hand grenade.”
The superb actors wring out every drop of toxic emotion with their bravura voices, their agonized facial expressions, their sensual body language without overacting or hitting a false note.
Arisco’s staging has the propulsive feel of raging whitewater flowing around submerged boulders (or nightclub tables). The drive never lags even in the quieter moments.
With simulated if clothed sex, pepperings of profanity and a baseball bat brandished ominously from the opening chords, this certainly is not everybody’s cup of Jack Daniels with a strychnine chaser. But for a crowd seeking vibrant, invigorating musical theater that feels relevant and contemporary, you simply can’t do better than this.
If you go
What: ‘Murder Ballad’ by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash.
Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional 2 p.m. show Oct. 15), through Nov. 2.
Cost: $53 Friday-Saturday, $45 other shows (10 percent off for seniors, $15 student rush tickets, excludes Saturday-Sunday).
Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.