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(left to right) Jacquelyne Jones and Liz Chidester. Photo by Marisa KM.
By Catey Sullivan
Raw, aggressive and raucous, “Lizzie” plays like a mashup of Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot, with a dash of “Spring Awakening” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” It is also wholly its own animal, and defies comparison to any other resident of musical theater land. The tale of suspected (but ultimately acquitted) ax murderess Lizzie Borden is also as delightfully bloody as you’d anticipate given the titular character’s claim to fame.
And although “Lizzie” makes no bones as to whether Borden actually wielded that infamous ax, the musical (music by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt, lyrics by Tim Maner and Cheslik-deMayer, book by Maner) makes fratricide seem like a not entirely unreasonable option given the dark goings-on in the house of Borden. After all, one can only take so much wanton cruelty and oppression before hauling the ax out.
Arguably (or not) one of the most anticipated musicals of the season, “Lizzie” marks the debut of Firebrand Theatre, the only Equity musical theater house in the entire country devoted to producing musicals where women are front, center and not singing about men.
In addition to the cast, the band and the director, nearly every designer working on the show identifies as female. If you think that’s not a big deal, you are mistaken. There have been countless musicals over the past 30 years with an all-male production team. The reverse virtually never happens.
With “Lizzie,” director Victoria Bussert and musical director Andra Velis Simon deliver a show where the gleefully gory violence isn’t just a prurient exercise in over-the-top F/X. There’s a fine sense of catharsis to be had watching a previously corseted young lady unleash both her stays and havoc. Obviously nobody’s condoning murder, there’s no denying the inspirational empowerment that Lizzie embodies once she starts with the whackery.
“Lizzie” begins eerie, with the four-person cast rotating like music box ballerinas while delivering a wide-eyed, spooky pianissimo rendition of the old jump-rope ditty. (You know it: “Lizzie Borden took an ax/Gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her father forty-one.”) From there, Simon ramps up the volume, blasting the infectiously percussive “In the House of Borden” with hair-raising creepiness.
The score ranges from yearning ballads (“Will You Stay) to punk rock ragers (“Gotta Get Outta Here”). The cast slays them all.
As Lizzie, Liz Chidester is at once an innocent victim and a viciously manipulative sociopath. She’s defiant and submissive, capable of both dishing out extreme violence and almost meekly accepting it when others do it to her. Camille Robinson gives Lizzie’s older sister Emma a sinister maternity, growling through “What the F* Now Lizzie” with an exasperation that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been annoyed by the antics of a misbehaving sibling.
Leah Davis plays Borden maid Bridget with an insouciant witchiness. Often called “Maggie” by the Bordens (because that was the name of their previous maid), Bridget is nobody’s subservient servant. In the midst of a bloodbath, she sees opportunity and cannily makes the most of it.
Finally, there’s Jacquelyne Jones as Alice, the girl-next-door who is deeply in love with Lizzie Borden. Jones gives Alice a sweetness that’s no match for Lizzie’s intelligence and ferocity. Jones makes Alice’s neediness achingly apparent – all this young woman wants is to be loved, and she’s easily, tragically bulldozed into bending to the Borden commands in order to acquire that love.
As a whole, the ensemble is a pile-driving machine, assaulting the mic stands and assailing the audience with their uncompromising vocals. Simon’s band (Stella Vie on bass, Nora Barton on cello and percussion, Courtney McNally on drums) is a rock-and-roll wonder, capable of full-throttle sound and fury (“Thirteen Days in Taunton”) and delicate nuance (“This is Not Love”). Sound designer Victoria Deiorio makes the score clear and powerful, no small feat given the extremes in volume and the rip-roaring pace of many of the lyrics.
Charlotte Letmann’s costume design is a witty blend of S & M and Victoriana, with the emphasis moving from the latter to the former post-intermission. The boots alone are to die for. The aesthetic is completed by Maya Michele Fein’s hyper-dramatic lighting design and Eleanor Kahn’s simple, high-impact set design.
As for the infamous forty whacks: They’re rendered both literally and stylistically and with all the gruesome explosiveness you’d expect in a show about a double ax-murder. Pro-tip: If you plan on sitting in the front row, dress for a slight chance of splatter. No matter where you sit “Lizzie” will reach out and grab you by the throat. If “Lizzie” is a harbinger, Firebrand has a fine future.
LIZZIE plays through December 17th at the Den Theater. More info at firebrandtheatre.org.