Lizzie: The Musical – A Frenzied Climaxe
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
Lizzie Andrew Borden, true-crime buff’s darling and (seeming) center of Lizzie: The Musical, was acquitted of the murder of her father and stepmother in 1892. Does that mean fuck-all when it comes to public opinion of the crime? Nope, it sure doesn’t. Guilty she was, in the eyes of pretty much everyone, and guilty she will remain, thanks to a charming ditty set to the tune of “Tra-la-la-boom-de-ay” that meanly, joyously slid into American lexicon almost immediately. Lizzie: The Musical (book and lyrics by Tim Maner, music and lyrics by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt) has more than a little in common with that kindergarten staple: if the song is catchy enough, historical accuracy flies right out the window.
Of course, if you’re attending a rock opera for PBS levels of faithful reproduction, you’re gonna have a bad time, but even while I deeply, deeply enjoyed being blown out by Lizzie‘s enthusiastic headbanging and lady-cock-rock, combat-booted aesthetic, I found the story kind of empty. I can’t say that I know a whole lot more now then when I walked in about the frustratingly enigmatic Lizzie Borden, but maybe that’s beside the point. The show has one setting, and that setting is loud, fucking loud at times, and one speed, and that speed is rage. While I’m not 100% certain how feminist such a facile interpretation of the character is, and of what certainly was a complex, deeply rooted situation in in Fall River in the late 1800s (the show is long on conjecture, short on evidence), the screaming women of Guerrilla Theatre Front’s production will make you want to get up and cheer, and maybe tear the set apart with your bare hands while you’re at it, because, and it has to be said: they absolutely fucking rule.
Parker Bailey Steven’s Lizzie Borden is a fragile soul who has been abused to the point of crisis by her father, and, indirectly, his wife. Her first songs rip by in a frenzy of thrashing twitches and fugue-like, almost zombie-ish movement, but when Steven hits “This Is Not Love,” a rare quieter moment (quieter, not quiet, mind you) she proves that she is as emotionally effecting as she is brutal. Similarly, standing out in the first act is the plaintive “If You Knew” from JacQuan Knox as Alice Russell, a friend of Lizzie’s (here, they are lovers). Knox is a welcome, and singular, grounded force, as far as I could see, Alice is the only one of the quad who hasn’t gone exquisitely, batshit insane. Caitlin Weaver commands the stage, kind of rips it out of everyone else’s hands, every time she’s on it as Lizzie’s sister Emma, who holds the match, sometimes literally, to the kindling of Lizzie’s desperation. Weaver swishes and stomps her way through this thing like the pro she is; she and Steven are unstoppable in the roaring “What the Fuck Now, Lizzie?” and “Burn the Old Thing Up.” And Siobhan Beckett is a revelation as Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s maid, who has a glint in her eye and malice in her haaart. Beckett’s voice is incredible, when she lets loose to the height of her range in “Shattercane and Velvet Grass”, I felt like my face was going to catch fire, though that Irish accent has a tendency to slip.
If the book is a touch one-note, music director Megann Baldwin makes sure the band never is, teasing nuance out of what could have been an up-to-eleven-only hour and a half (the show is a lot more “rock” than “opera”). Baldwin is challenged by director Greg Bell’s use of space, she and the pit are stuck in a tin can off to the left of the action, but the timing is impeccable, and the musicality on point. Bell brings the same kind of claustrophobia to the staging, there’s a lot of angrily going up and down stairs, but it’s mostly effective, if a little constrained. Tech is heavily rock concert inspired, which works, and set by Aaron Eison pleasingly organic, a twisted version of the town growing out of the existent graffitied, art covered walls of Creative Labs. I loved the projection and video work from Chris Uehlinger, by turns breathtaking and funny, lending an epic vibe to the show while always staying just this side of the delicate line of camp.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Lizzie: The Musical is no history lesson, but I was stoked to see such strong, lady-fronted rock opera in Baltimore. I don’t think you get better vocals than this anywhere, and the free-for-all passion of the production, combined with stellar musical direction and killer leading ladies, make this a sublime moment of small theater. It’s a short run, and you’re going to kick yourself if you miss it.