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Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical

Theater Review (NYC Fringe): ‘Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical’

An ambitious entry in the 2024 NYC Fringe Festival is a tongue-in-cheek meta-fable with murder ballads and a serious message. In Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical, first-time playwright Eve Blackwater of goth-folk trio the Brokeneck Girls conjures a mythical bar somewhere in the American South in the 1890s. As three unlikely but sympathetic characters form a bond during a crime-related lockdown, secrets come to light, some anguished, others fantastical.

We learn, in short, how the lives of these fictional women intersect with the stories behind traditional murder ballads played and sung by the Brokeneck Girls (Blackwater, Kendra MacDevitt, and Jeannie Skelly) as part of the action.

Murder Ballad Central

The scenario’s imaginary aura arises quickly when Lady Arlin (Alexandria Thomas) arrives at Tofana’s Tavern dressed for a fancy ball. First of all, how a mayor’s wife in a Southern town in the 1890s is “Lady” anything defies belief; and later we learn that casting Thomas, a person of color, in the role was not “colorblind casting.”

A murderer is on the loose, hence the lockdown. Another is scheduled to be hanged that very day. Bar-owner Babs (Olivia Whicheloe) explains to Lady Arlin that because so many people get killed in this town, the local folk singers (the Brokeneck Girls), formerly itinerant, can get all the murder-ballad material they need right here and so have settled down permanently in Tofana’s.

Two Trios for the Price of One

Babs has a mythical past, carries a gun, and stocks more than liquor behind her bar. The Sheriff is a woman (Emily Ross), and accepted as such in town. An escaped pet parrot is spreading secrets around town, and someone is feeding freshly composed murder stories to the resident folk trio so they can sing about new murders before the crimes have even been uncovered. It’s a space where both time and reality stumble and fly off in different directions.

Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical poster

Thomas chews the scenery in classic vaudeville style; Babs emerges as a figure of mythic proportions; and the female Sheriff is, improbably, wonderfully believable. All three characters reveal multiple dimensions. Lady Arlin is pampered but confined, vain but sensitive. The Sheriff unfolds quiet depths and a thoroughly understandable origin story. Babs becomes much more than the stereotypical bartender character who sees and knows all but is rarely part of the action.

Well Played

The actors deliver big and lively but nuanced performances amid a story quite divorced from realism. None of it makes sense, but the human stories and themes behind all the humor and magical realism are real and clear. Crisply directed by Michael Hagins, the characters bond over shared experience in a world dominated by abusive men. Sometimes they must respond in kind, even if that means – well, generating new murder ballads.

In parallel, the Brokeneck Girls show off oodles of personality and panache, with strong singing and playing, lovely vocal harmonies, and funny vamping. The songs range from Child Ballads, to American folk classics about murders and disasters, to stylish originals.

Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical is a trenchant and wickedly chortling delight. It has two more performances at the NYC Fringe Festival.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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