Our society has a fascination with horrific, grisly murders, especially if there is seemingly an element of revenge or retribution involved. They become part of the popular culture. Just think about the case of Evelyn Nesbit and the murder of Harry Thaw, which figures in the musical Ragtime; the case of accused murders Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner who were the models for the characters in the musical Chicago; or the fascination around the accused murderer Lizzie Andrew Borden. What’s next? A musical about O. J. Simpson? They tried a movie, but it failed. Perhaps it is too soon.
But let’s go back to Lizzie Border. There is a morbid fascination with this young woman, perhaps inspired by the well-known rhyme, “Lizzie Borden took an axe / and gave her mother forty whacks / and when she saw what she had done / she gave her father forty-one”. The story inspired a song in New Faces of 1952; it led to a popular song by the Chad Mitchell Trio (used in the title of this post, although the same phrase is in the New Faces song). There have been ballets, operas, plays, movies, and short stories. I’m old enough to even remember the 1975 movie. There have also been musicals, notably Lizzie Borden, with music by Christopher McGovern and book and lyrics by Christopher McGovern and Amy Powers, which premiered in New Jersey in 1998, and had a 2014 cast album. There was also Spindle City: The Lizzie Borden Musical by Katrina Wood, which had its premiere at the Secret Rose Theatre in 2016. Then there is the most recent take on the show, Lizzie: The Musical, which also has a studio cast album.
According to the show’s webpage, this version of the telling began life a four-song experimental theater/rock show hybrid created by writer/director Tim Maner and songwriter Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer for tiny mythic theater company’s American Living Room festival in 1990. After some early productions, it sat for a number of years until 2007, when the rights were purchased and a new production started. This culminated in a production that ran for six weeks in fall 2009 at The Living Theatre on New York’s Lower East Side. This resulted in more productions and more development, resulting in a 2013 studio album. Albums help sell shows. Many more productions followed; I learned about the show from an Amazon recommendation. There was also some additional music and additional lyrics from Alan Stevens Hewitt. Most recently, there was a well-received production in downtown Los Angeles starting in September 2018 running intermittently into January 2019. Alas, due to the venue and timing, I was unable to work this production into my schedule. Luckily (for me), the Chance Theatre (FB) opted to produce the show for the opening of their 21st season, thus providing the occasion for our annual trip to the Anaheim Hills (and an always delightful dinner at True Seasons across the street).
Back to Lizzie Borden: the person. If you are only familiar with the story of Lizzie Borden from the nursery rhyme, the Chad Mitchell Trio song, or New Faces, you don’t know the real story. There are some good summations of the story on both the Wikipedia Page on Lizzie Borden and the Famous Trials page. Both make it clear that the authors of Lizzie: The Musical did their homework with respect to the facts. I recall numerous factoids mentioned in the musical that are detailed in the articles I linked. One would think, given the nursery rhyme, that Lizzie clearly did the crime and was convicted. However, there was never enough information to convince a jury. There were holes in the story, and plausible other suspects and holes in the timeline. In the end, Lizzie was found innocent, and there were no subsequent retrials. Did Lizzie do it? History can only guess.
The version of the story presented in Lizzie: The Musical focuses on the four primary women involved in the aftermath of the story: Lizzie Andrew Borden and her older sister Emma; Lizzie’s neighbor and friend Alice Russell; and their maid Bridget Sullivan. The parental generation for the girls (their father, their step-mother, and their mother) are only referenced; John Morse, their uncle, who was visiting the house at the time of the murder, is not mentioned at all. Neither is their other neighbor, Mrs. Churchill, who helped investigate afterwards. The focus of the story is more the relationships between the girls and their parents. There is an (implied) relationship between Lizzie and Alice (this was mentioned in some versions of the story, as well as implied relationships between Lizzie and Bridget). There is the hint of sexual abuse from Lizzie’s father toward’s Lizzie. It is also made clear that both girls hated their step-mother, and that they saw her as only going after their father’s money (which they considered theirs as well). There was also clear resentment from Bridget towards the girls and her employer. Lastly, the story made clear the fact that Lizzie was somewhat strange in her behavior and attachments.
The music in the story had a strong rock tinge — whether punk or not I cannot say, only that it wasn’t as loud as I expected. The show is essentially sung through, and the dialogue captures quite a few of the nuances from the story, such as their eating food until it became rotten and made them sick, the heat wave, the cheapness of the senior Bordens. The rock music allowed for a strong impression of the anger of the situation, and the raw emotion that was certainly there. I think it also is the reason why this version of the story — as opposed to a more traditional musical approach — is growing in popularity. In a number of ways, it reminded me of the raw emotion of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Overall, story-wise and music-wise, what is my outgoing impression? That’s hard to say. This wasn’t my favorite musical, but it was quite interesting. It presented an interesting take on the story, and used the medium of music to capture the strength of the anger and emotion quite well. It was a reasonably accurate retelling of the story, and I could easily see the music of this show growing on me. Although there is violence in the story, it isn’t pictured in a strongly graphic or gratuitous nature. There is strong language. It’s not a subject you would think would work well, but it does.
This is a musical that touches on some very strong subject matter — sexual abuse, incest, lesbian relationships, murder, and anger. It captures the rawness of the resulting emotions through the emotional release of hard punkish rock musical. If you can deal with that, I think you’ll enjoy this show. The performances are strong, and the story is interesting and compelling. It also has a resonance to today, with the echos of early empowerment of women choosing to take back their lives. If you are unsure, I suggest you sample the concept album available for the show — it provides a good taste of what you will be seeing. As I think about it more and more, I’m really liking it.
Under the direction of Jocelyn A. Brown (FB), with choreography by Hazel Clarke (FB) and musical direction by Robyn Manion (FB), the show, well, rocks with a strong energy and rock vibe. The set itself is very abstractionist, so the creation of the characters comes from the performances, costumes, and properties. Brown did a good job of establishing the four women as very different personals: Emma is hard, Lizzie is strange and oddly withdrawn, Alice is emotional, and Bridget is an observer and sardonic. It is harder to judge the dance as I am not an aficionado of the punk scene, but there are moves that feel punkish. In fact, in many ways they seem a bit overdone punkish, with a lot of head swinging and hair flinging during the harder rock scenes. Whether that was an accurate expression of the inner rage, or a caricature of punk movement, I cannot say. The music was strong and hard and loud … but not too loud.
The actors were all strong. In the lead position was Monika Peña (FB) as Lizzie Andrew Borden, who we had last seen in Claudio Quest, but who is a Chance regular. Peña again brought an inner strength to the character: one felt there was something behind her anger and attitude, and she conveyed that not only through what she said but through her motion and attitude. Peña had a strong rock voice, and handled her numbers well.
As Lizzie’s friend Alice Russell, Jisel Soleil Ayon (FB) was also extremely strong in her performance. This is no surprise; she blew us away when we saw her in Edges at CSUN. She was great in her vocals; she also brought loads of emotion of her role and provided just the right nuances of the relationship with Lizzie.
Nicole Gentile (FB) was fun to watch as Bridget Sullivan (Maggie to Lizzie and Emma). Perhaps it is because I’m a sucker for an Irish accent. In any case, she was essentially the narrator and outside observer, having the burden of providing the necessary exposition and sardonic commentary and implications of the story. This she did well, as well as rocking her numbers with a clear attitude that shone through her performance.
Lastly, Alli Rose Schynert (FB) played Lizzie’s sister, Emma Borden. She has a smaller role, as in real life Emma left before the murders occurred and returned just afterwards. Schynert’s portrayal captures Emma as a angry older young woman (she was likely in her mid-20s at the time) with a very short fuse. Initially, I thought her portrayal might have been a bit over the top; thinking more, it seemed to fit what I read about the character. She had a strong rock singing voice and attitude.
Providing the music was an on-stage band under the direction of the aforementioned Robyn Manion (FB) who was on the keyboard. Working with her was Jimmy Beall (FB) [Bass]; Lorianne Frelly (FB) [Cello]; Jorge Zuniga (FB) [Drums], and Jacob Gonzalez (FB) [Guitar]. Notable here were Manion and Gonzalez. Manion was notable for her conducting attitude and the way she got into the music — watching her lead the other musicians was a clear testament to the enjoyment of this music. Gonzalez had some notable solos during the show during which he just rocked out.
Turning to the production and creative side: Note that the current version of the show credits music to Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer (FB) and Alan Stevens Hewitt (FB); lyrics to Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer (FB) and Tim Maner (FB); and book to Tim Maner (FB). Additional music by Tim Maner (FB); additional lyrics by Alan Stevens Hewitt (FB) (so everyone does everything). Orchestrations by Alan Stevens Hewitt (FB). Based on an original concept by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer (FB) and Tim Maner (FB).
Back to this production: Kristin Campbell (FB)’s scenic design was dark and abstract, almost scaffold like, but with sufficient arches and spaces to hide various devices. It was not realistic. As such it was augmented by the lighting and projection design of KC Wilkerson (FB), which worked well to establish the mood — especially the lights out into the audience space and the projections. This can be seen in the production photos to the right. Rachael Lorenzetti‘s costume design was an interesting mix of the clothing of the era and a sexy-punk vibe, and worked well. Ryan Brodkin (FB)’s sound design did not overpower (as I feared it might). Additional production credits: Jessica Johnson (FB) [Dramaturg]; Kelsey Somerville (FB) [Stage Manager]; Casey Long (FB) [Managing Director]; Erika C. Miller (FB) [Development Director]; Masako Tobaru (FB) [Technical Director]; Bebe Herrera (FB) [Production Manager], and many more Chance staff and production team members. Oanh Nguyen (FB) is the Executive Artistic Director of the Chance Theatre (FB).
Lizzie: The Musical continues at the Chance Theatre (FB) through March 3, 2019. It is well worth the drive down to the Anaheim Hills to see the show, especially if you wanted to see it in Los Angeles but couldn’t work it into your schedule. I’ll note that running parallel to Lizzie at the Chance is their youth production of James and the Giant Peach. We saw this last year, and it was a joy. It features music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the team behind Dogfight, Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land, and The Greatest Showman. That is also a production worth seeing. Tickets for Lizzie and James are available through the Chance website; discount tickets for both may be available on Goldstar.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
March starts with Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), followed by the annual MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at Temple Beth Hillel. The next weekend brings “Disney’s Silly Symphony” at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of March brings Cats at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The following weekend is Matilda at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) on Saturday, followed by Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage) on Sunday. March concludes with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
April starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. The next weekend has a hold for OERM. April will also bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Looking to May, only four shows are currently programmed: Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB); and Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Because some of those shows are mid-week, two weekends are currently open (but will likely be programmed as press announcements are received). June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.