“Lizzie Borden took an ax, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one.” These words, taken from a popular folk rhyme, are the first that we hear in Lizzie. Much like the show’s protagonist, they’re deceptively simple. They may be set to a simple nursery-rhyme melody, but there’s a blood-stained rage hiding just below the surface.
Lizzie appeared in its first embryonic forms in the early 90s. In 2009, the writers (Tim Maner, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer) decided to expand and rework the material, and turn it into the full-length piece that it is today. This production currently playing at London’s Greenwich Theatre, marks the UK premiere, though it began at Denmark’s Fredericia Theatre.
The story is a fictionalized account, inspired by the true story of Lizzie Borden, a young woman who was put on trial in 1892 for the murder of her father and stepmother. Yet despite being set in the late 19th century, Lizzie is anything but a period piece. It takes the form of a Riot Grrrl concert, using a series of fierce rock numbers to delve into Lizzie’s painful path to patricide. It’s always a pleasure to see a musical embrace the style of music that best evokes the character’s emotions – time period be damned. Lizzie is more than just an infamous news story from 1892, she’s a rebel who refuses to tolerate her abusers. She sings these pulse-pounding rock ballads because it’s the only music that can channel her rage.
In addition to the visceral music (by Cheslik-DeMeyer & Hewitt), Lizzie also manages to tell its story very clearly and effectively. Musicals of this variety often push the clarity of the storytelling to the background, allowing the music to take center-stage, especially when it’s predominately sung through. Lizzie doesn’t allow that to happen; the lyrics (Cheslik-DeMeyer & Tim Maner) are always rooted in the storytelling.
The book (Maner) is well-structured, taking a fairly literal, scene-based approach to the story. This was effective, but it also raises the question: was setting it up like a concert really the best decision? On one level, it makes perfect sense: the show, with a cast of four women, is an homage to Riot Girrrl groups. The music lends itself well to a concert setting, and the use of bright lights and hand-held microphones is effective. On the other hand, the storytelling structure and physical staging are more like a traditional book musical, as opposed to something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a comparable show that fully embraces its concert setting. This is a minor quibble, though, and didn’t detract from the experience.
This production’s international cast consists of Bjorg Gamst (Lizzie), Eden Espinosa (Emma Borden), Bleu Woodward (Alice Russell) and Jodie Jacobs (Bridget). Each one delivers a powerhouse performance, perfectly capturing their character’s ambitions and emotions, while bringing the house down with jaw-dropping vocals.
Though the alternative style probably won’t be every musical theatre fan’s cup of tea, Lizzie provides a killer score that perfectly matches the passionate, psychologically complex story.
By Joe Weinberg
(photos: Soren Malmose)