Friday, October 13, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 430, A Review: "Lizzie" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

 By James V. Ruocco

Fall River, Massachusetts.
230 2nd Street.
August 4,1892.
Two axes and a hatchet-head with a broken head.
Two dead bodies - Andrew and Abby Borden.
Bloody cloths found in the basement.
A forensic investigation.
No evident motive.
No robbery or sexual assault.
Widespread publicity.
The primary suspect: 32-year-old Lizzie Borden who was served with a warrant of arrest and jailed on August 11,1892 and indicted by a grand jury for murder on December 2, 1892.
But did she, do it?
Did she get away with it?
What really went on behind the closed doors of the Borden house?
Is she innocent, guilty or a damned good actress and liar?
On June 20, 1893, Borden was acquitted of the actual murders by a judge who ruled that the incident was "too remote" to have any connection or links to the death of both Andrew and Abby Borden.

Her story - fascinating, hypnotic, disturbing - is played out in true rock concert form in "Lizzie," Tim Maner's adrenaline-fueled take on the infamous, supposed serial killer who had an axe to grind along with grievances, guilt, oppression, sin, fantasy and standout sexual liaisons with a woman.


"Lizzie," as presented on the stage of TheaterWorks in Hartford is a rollercoaster thrill ride of darkness and playfulness allegorized by unapologetic dialogue, music, madness and motive that it distinctive, hip, crazed, ferocious, fucked up and completely mind blowing.
It is fun.
It is confident.
It is cold-blooded.
It is sexy.
It is original.
It is psycho-grand steeped in fascination, metaphor, subjugation and theory.
Its blast of energy and breezy confidence is blood-red roar with plenty of rumble, personality and impassioned perspective.
Here, anything that can happen, will happen and does.

The brainchild of Steven Cheslik-Demeyer (music and lyrics), Alan Stevens Hewitt (music) and Tim Maner (lyrics), "Lizzie's" emotional fireworks pave the way for steely vocals, soulful voices, pop-rock beats and rhythms, mind-blowing high notes and four girl ensemble runs that frame the story, emphasize the musical's mystery and deliver a blast of megawatt energy and contrast.
Carefully positioned, jockeyed, constructed and ready to rock, they are (in order of performance):  "Forty Whacks (Prologue)," "The House of Borden," "This is Not Love," "Gotta Get Out of Here," "If You Knew," "The Soul of the White Bird," "Maybe Someday," "Sweet Little Sister," "Shattercane and Velvet Glass," "Will You Stay?" "Why Are All These Heads Off?" "Mercury Rising," "Somebody Will Do Something," "The Fall of the House of Borden/The Alibi," "What the Fuck Now, Lizzie?" "Burn the Old Thing Up," "Questions, Questions," "Will You Lie," "Watchmen for the Morning," "Maybe Someday (reprise)," "Thirteen Days in Tanton," "Maybe Someday (reprise 2)" and "Into Your Wildest Dreams (Epilogue)."
Bringing an adventurous, unique voice and style to the proceedings, musical director Erica R. Gamez's effective movement and expressivity thrust the "Lizzie" musical score front and center with achieved balance, spark, navigation and sensationalism. The result, in turn, is seamless, excited and harmonic - delivered with total commitment, truth, force and roar.
It's a thunderbolt process delivered with precise, bold interpretation by Gamez herself (conductor/keyboard 1) and an especially talented orchestral team that includes Molly Plaisted (drums), Billy Bivona (guitar 1), Esther Benjamin (cello), Jeff Carlson (guitar2/keyboard 2) and Christie Echols (bass). As "Lizzie evolves, its themes of anguish, lust and majesty come full circle as Gamez and company produce a performance that accentuates the sweep and drama envisioned by the musical's collaborators, its intense rock concert partnership, its daring push and pull, its cemented rattle and its lyrical position and poetry.

Staging "Lizzie," director Lanie Sakakura takes hold of the musical's daring ideas and flaming chaos and theories and creates an artfully arranged spectacle of colorful, made-made arcadia that stalks, tilts, hypnotizes and embellishes. Working alongside Brian Prather (set design), Rob Denton (lighting design), Camilla Tassi (projection design) and Megan Culley (sound design), she transports the theatergoer back in time to an eerie 19th century environment that retraces the Lizzie Borden story with a Jack the Ripper-like madness and darkness that is harrowing, speculative, invested and truthful.
Yet despite its alluring, ovation-worthy special effects and rich, atmospheric landscape, Sakakura doesn't turn "Lizzie" into a bona fide sound-and-light show. Nor does she sacrifice storytelling or characterization. Instead, she takes hold of Tim Maner's playscript, gives it a long, hard read and digs deep. That determination prompts knotty connections, theories, surprises and thoughts that lucidly augment the play's aesthetics, musicality, wordplay and dangerous implications and romanticism.
The heat intensifies. The danger mounts. Story arcs evolve till there's no time left. The music soars. And finally, full pathos clarifies the play's concluding moments as the lights ease their way into complete darkness. 

"Lizzie" stars Sydney Shepherd as Lizzie Borden, Courtney Bassett as Emma Borden, Kim Onah as Alice Russell and Nora Schell as Bridget Sullivan,
All four actresses bring spirit-lifting humor, voice and sass to the rock concert arena that is "Lizzie" strutting around the stage with fierce determination, allure, spotlight exhilaration and power pop musicality.
Their singing gives way to hyper-aware, diva-like entertainment that is pop spectacle galore. Vocally, they are very much in the moment, lathered up in perfect-pitch girl-band spice and sizzle.
They jump. They tilt. They entice. They command.
They know their history. They know the story.
And each and every one of them get the anthems and showstoppers they deserve.

A musical etched with rock concert jubilation and off-the-charts hysteria, "Lizzie" cuts loose across the TheaterWorks stage with a diva-like thrust, illuminated by a backdrop of eye-popping, technical brilliance, four outstanding performances, a cutting-edge score and a wicked mindset of blood, gore, motivation, mutilation and humor that takes an axe to front-page headlines with confidence, intensity and influence.
It is dark. It is gruesome. It is bizarre. It is emotional. It is mad. It is queer. It is hypnotic.
It is dangerous.
More importantly, it's all backed by story-shaking fantasy, barnstorming and attitude that hits you in the face, kicks you in the ass, gets you clapping and up on your feet ready for an amped up history lesson of female victimhood, education and survival that is absolutely incredible.

Guilty? Not Guilty?
You decide.
The choice is yours.

Photos of "Lizzie" courtesy of Mike Marques.

"Lizzie" is being staged at TheaterWorks (233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT), now through October 29, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838.

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