Some theater companies take "immersive" to mean that the set design extends a little past the stage, or that the actors might venture into the audience once or twice to complete a scene. With Imprint Theatreworks' Murder Ballad, there's practically no line between the show and you.
The new-ish group, led by director Ashley H. White, has turned the Margo Jones Theatre into The King's Club (complete with a bouncer at the door who's checking IDs and stamping hands), and after you enter you are truly a part of the musical. The TABC-certified cast might serve you a drink at the bar, or toss a pool cue your way to play a game or two. Scenic designer Ellen Mizener has gotten every gritty, glamorous detail right, down to the chalkboard letting patrons know what little bar food there might have been earlier has sold out.
The band (led by music director Adam C. Wright) is perched on the small stage opposite the bar, backing up that night's pre-show singer (Beth Lipton and Jamall Houston alternate performances, which include three late-night shows).
But when you take your seat, it won't matter if you choose one of the onstage tables or a perch along the side. Actors will be crawling, slinking, stomping, and gyrating next to and across you as you experience Juliana Nash and Julia Jordan's rock musical.
The narrator (a smoky-eyed and flame-haired Laura Lites) promises in the first song that "someone's gonna die," then lays out the backstory for our troubled trio. Sara (Brett Warner) and Tom (Kyle Igneczi) are enjoying their wild-child 20s in New York City until Tom breaks it off. Sara falls right into the arms of Michael (Aaron C. White), a serious and sweet NYU student who ends up marrying her and providing a stable home for their eventual daughter.
But the restless Sara can't get the hot bartender out of her mind, so years later she looks him up. Now the owner of a bar in Lower Manhattan called The King's Club, Tom has also never quite moved on from Sara. They begin a torrid affair that has devastating consequences as Sara slips back into her old habits, and as the show's telling title predicts, one of them doesn't make it out alive.
It might seem odd that sound engineer Brian Christiansen has the cast wearing microphones in such a small space, but as the rock opera gets going, the reasoning reveals itself. The amplification enhances the rock 'n' roll concert feel, with the voices rattling in your head and the guitar reverb digging into your ears. It also saves their voices, as the foursome always seem to be leaping from the bar, climbing on the pool table, or emerging from the shadows while they sing.
Imprint fans got a taste of this cast when they performed selections from the musical at the season launch party, and it was a wise move for director White to retain them all for the full production. Lites' clear soprano wonderfully juxtaposes her goth-princess appearance, while Warner's wide eyes, disheveled purple hair, and throaty voice make her a whirlwind of emotion (Jessie Wallace's costumes are appropriately sexy for each character, and instantly telegraph a personality in conjunction with Michael B. Moore's excellent hair and makeup design).
With his man-bun and hipster glasses, Aaron C. White is there to lull you into a false sense of non-threatening nice-guy security, but gets his chance to explode when Sara's indiscretions become known. Igneczi looks like every delicious bad decision you made in your 20s, and it's simply perfect.
For $1 you can buy a raffle ticket to win the pool table after the production closes — but after seeing all that happens on it, you might not be so eager.
Imprint Theatreworks' production of Murder Ballad runs at the Margo Jones Theatre through May 12.