“Murder Ballad” stars, from left, are Christa Holbrook, Dillon Porter, Aba Kiser and Greg Stone. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/for Peninsula Daily News)

‘Murder Ballad’ tale of the bartender, the poet and the woman torn

PORT TOWNSEND — Here’s a woman who wants both the hot sun and the wide blue sky. Sara, she of the leather jacket and soft voice, craves daily passion and abiding love.

This being the 21st century, of course, Sara also must rise to at least three sets of social standards: Be sexy, be a good mom and lean in to career success. Oh, and stay true to yourself.

Enter Tom and Michael. Both want the good life. Both want Sara.

This triangle, in fact a rectangle when you add the ultra-sultry narrator, seethes around you from the moment of arrival at the Key City Playhouse.

The place is transformed into a bar, replete with beer, wine and billiards, for “Murder Ballad,” the rock opera headed into its final weekend. Director Denise Winter chose this work by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, which played off-Broadway in New York City, because she felt it ideal for Key City.

Since opening in early June, performances have been selling out at the Key City Playhouse, 419 Washington St.

Winter said seats at the final five shows are about 50 percent spoken for. “Ballad” begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through this Sunday with two shows Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Doors open one hour before showtime.

Tickets are $20 to $24 at keycitypublictheatre.org or 360-385-5278 (KCPT).

This is an immersive, cabaret-style show. You, audience member, can come have a drink, shoot some pool or just relax at the onstage bar while the band warms up.

“Ballad” is a tight ship: four cast members, four musicians. They revolve around Aba Kiser, the Port Townsend singer-songwriter, who portrays Sara in all her hyperkinetic glory. She came to New York City be a rock star, and soon she leads the wild life with Tom, her hot bartender boyfriend (Dillon Porter).

But maybe there’s something else out there, something soulful.

This something else comes in the form of Michael, played by Seattle actor Greg Stone. He seems to offer the stability and family life Sara didn’t think she deserved.

Together Sara and Michael, who has a Ph.D. in poetry and is studying for an MBA, build a brand-new life. They marry and have a little girl.

But this show is titled “Murder Ballad,” and it’s time to hold on to your cabaret table and be ready for a lot of rocking and rolling.

“Time reveals,” said Kiser, “that Sara is not the poster example of a mom. She has trouble juggling the mundane details of everyday life, though she loves her daughter dearly.”

At this point, Sara doesn’t know who she really is. She’s become unrecognizable.

So she calls an old friend.

And finds herself in his arms.

It turns out that while Sara and Tom were apart, he changed his life, too. He now owns a bar. He’s on a trajectory of his own.

Stone, for his part as Michael, was appearing in “The Secret Garden” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre when Winter phoned about “Murder Ballad.”

A friend, seeing a strange look on his face, told Stone: “Do it. Challenge yourself.”

Staying emotionally available and vulnerable, dealing with infidelity: tough, he says. But Stone is loving this role, the cast and what he believes is a cathartic experience for audience members.

So we have the triangle, hurtling through space toward we know not where. We also have the Narrator, played by Christa Holbrook, giving commentary from her place at the bar.

This observer, Holbrook says, weaves herself in and out of each scene, taking the audience by the hand through the ballad. It is a deeply personal story, shot through with the characters’ vulnerabilities, desires — and with the undercurrent provided by the four-piece rock band.

Linda Dowdell, the performer, composer and arranger transplanted some years ago from New York City to the North Olympic Peninsula, leads the band, standing at her double-rack keyboard. She takes us through some 40 numbers in this sung-through, 80-minute show.

Every night, Dowdell can scarcely wait to see the effect “Murder Ballad” has on the audience.

“They are so captivated,” she says. “They never move.”

“I like how raw and gritty and real the story is … so close to the bone,” added Winter. People will recognize themselves and their loved ones in it, she believes.

Winter promises, too, that the unfolding story will defy your expectations.

“There is an audible aha! moment,” she said, adding that people who have seen the show haven’t been giving anything away to those who’ve yet to attend. The spoiler issue, Winter said, “is self-managed.”

Holbrook, who has worked with Winter and Dowdell a number of times, said “Murder Ballad” is another thing altogether.

“In this collaboration,” she said, “they really let their hair down.”


Diane Urbani de la Paz is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Angeles who also writes a column for the Peninsula Daily News.

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