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Theater Review (NYC): Lizzie Borden

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After some none-too-thrilling recent experiences with new musicals, including one about a famous set of awful murders, I wondered whether Lizzie Borden would be more of the same blathering – or the refreshing energy charge its promotions seemed to promise. Thank the Lord of the Flies (or somebody), it's the latter.

Loud, dark, creepy, and lovely to look at (despite limited quarters), the show fancifully retells the story of the sensational 1892 double murder in Fall River, Massachusetts. Thirty-two-year-old Lizzie Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet, despite circumstantial evidence against her. After the acquittal, many continued to believe in her guilt, and the nation has never forgotten the grisly tale.

The show assumes Lizzie's guilt and explores why the deeds might have gone down. Its creators – Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, who also directs – have set the songs in heavy metal modes, but little about the score screams "genre." It's loud, but never painfully or confusingly so, and it's edgy, with some gloomy imagery, but in essence it's comprised of simply wonderful tunes, with satisfying crunch, engaging and well-crafted lyrics, and bright (okay, dark) pop hooks. Some have complex structures, most luxuriously "Questions, Questions," one of several showstoppers, in which the four characters sing different overlapping parts and spin through evocative choreography – all in 7/8 time.

As there isn't much book, the show depends almost entirely on the songs to carry the story. Fortunately the sound designer (Jamie McElhinney) keeps the levels sensible, mics the singers well, and mixes everything properly, so one seldom misses a lyric. Even more fortunately, the four-woman cast is absolutely stellar, wonderful actors with clear, powerful voices that cut through the tight band's rock bombast without trouble.

Though the historical Lizzie's homosexuality has been fairly well established by events later in her life, the show's creators have (themselves, it seems) cooked up a romance between Lizzie (a supremely confident and perfectly fetching Jenny Fellner) and her friend Alice Russell (a radiant Marie-France Arcilla). Though the relationship is speculative, the writers have made smart use of Alice's trial testimony, turning lines like "I am afraid somebody will do something" and "I saw no blood on that dress" into pointed moments and memorable songs, and deepening the meaning of the events by the added dimension of the love story. An early song between the pair ("The Soul of the White Bird") takes place in the barn, where Lizzie escapes her hellish home life to tend her beloved pigeons. Artfully lit and shadowed by lighting designer Christian DeAngelis, it is beautifully, movingly performed by Ms. Fellner and Ms. Arcilla.

There are no characters but the four women: the regally coiffed but passionate Alice; Lizzie herself; her older sister Emma Borden (a sharp and funny Lisa Birnbaum, who has a powerful alto); and the maid, Bridget (a fierce, punked-out Carrie Cimma). The choice to leave out the elder Bordens seems a little odd at first, but its wisdom quickly becomes apparent as we're plunged into the closed, claustrophobic world of the sisters' half of the divided household. Each sister, and Bridget too, has been suggested by historians and enthusiasts as the real murderer, and the show develops along conspiratorial lines, with motives coalescing. A haunting Act I number, "Shattercane and Velvet Grass," is another showstopper, with Lizzie and Bridget circling around the idea of poisoning the usurping stepmother.

Bobby Frederick Tilley II dresses the women in gorgeous costumes, some period, others punk and biker-chick, effectively melding repressive Victorian mores with the escapist, almost vampiric imagery of the darker forms of rock music. The superb band includes Mr. Hewitt, along with Christian Gibbs of the Passing Strange band (also known as the very talented singer-songwriter C. Gibbs). The musicians propel the story inexorably towards its conclusion, which is tragic in a way, in spite of the uncertainty that lingers. Indeed, there's nothing indeterminate about this Lizzie Borden – it strikes like a hammer (or an axe), and with precision. The show would require only a modest expansion in length and breadth to be worthy of a production in a much larger setting, even Broadway. (Musicals need to be pretty long these days to justify $125 ticket prices).

For now, until Oct. 17, you can catch it for just $25 at The Living Theatre. Forty whacks to anyone who misses it.

Photos by Carl Skutsch. 1) Jenny Fellner. 2) Marie-France Arcilla, Jenny Fellner, Carrie Cimma.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.