BWW Reviews: TUTS Underground's LIZZIE Proves to be the Perfect Opener for a Season of Bold Theatre

Earlier this summer, Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) surprised us with the announcement of their newest endeavor TUTS Underground. With that announcement came the promise of "No revivals - No dead authors - No boundaries," and ultimately a cutting edge brand of theatre for Houston audiences. Kicking off TUTS Underground's inaugural season, the Houston premiere of LIZZIE, a musical about the axe wielding double-murderess Lizzie Borden, proves to be the perfect opener for a season of bold theatre.

Lizzie Borden, a young Victorian girl accused of brutally murdering her father and stepmother one summer day in Fall River, Massachusetts, remains notoriously controversial to this day. Without enough evidence to convict, Lizzie was found not guilty. To this day the two murders are unsolved.

LIZZIE is a rock musical that delivers a powerful punch while revisiting the events surrounding that infamous August day in 1892. LIZZIE begins with the familiar jump rope rhyme, "Lizzie Borden took an axe..." and throws the viewer deep into the House of Borden where motive hangs everywhere.

As a collaborative effort by Tim Maner, Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, and Alan Stevens Hewitt, LIZZIE craftily utilizes actual dialogue from the trial to retell Lizzie Borden's story. The writers' in-depth research successfully yields four multi-dimensional and bizarrely realistic characters; thus, unfolding a tale not about guilt but about freedom. We are introduced to the complicated home life of the Borden girls Lizzie and Emma, Lizzie's budding and unconventional relationship with her neighbor Alice, and the seemingly omnipresent and opinionated housemaid Bridget.

Lyrically, the music constructs a seamless narrative around the events surrounding the infamous murders, but the glory of this piece is that many of the songs are so evocative of their themes of freedom and longing that not only are they highly memorable but they easily stand alone in and out of the context of the story. The music reverberates with rock and roll but is balanced effectively with a fair number of haunting ballads. This provides an interesting and altogether revitalizing edge to the 1892 time period in which the story takes place. By presenting us with a tangibly macabre narrative and four ferocious women that embody unconventional gender roles and rock out in Victorian 1892, the writers of LIZZIE have exceled at making a musical that jars our senses in the best possible way. It is no wonder that in lieu of guilt, we root for Lizzie Borden to succeed and gain her freedom.

Kent Nicholson's skillful direction yields four cohesive characters that play off of each other quite effectively. Meanwhile, he efficiently brings out the angst that lies within each woman while producing the occasional laugh. The show bristles with dark humor, but some if it is not readily apparent on the concept recording.

Also, Kent Nicholson's choreography is comprehensive. From the tiniest hand flick to all out jumping around the stage, he successfully imbues the production with a rock and roll concert ambience. Part narrative, part rock concert, LIZZIE proves to be a piece of theatre unlike any other.

The strength of this musical comes from the four female performers who harmonize and vocally blend together in ways that seem deliciously ethereal. From the first perfectly pitched number, "Forty Whacks (Prologue)," to the finale, "Into Your Wildest Dreams," each cast member works together to vocally bring down the house. Carrie Manolakos delivers a powerhouse performance as Lizzie. She successfully portrays a multidimensional and troubled girl who has an odd sense of innocence in her demeanor but is steadfast in her dark deeds. She beautifully resonates with a sense of vulnerability and longing in numbers like "This Is Not Love," but vocally soars during her performance of "Why Are All These Heads Off?" and "Thirteen Days in Taunton."

Carrie Cimma excels as the caustic Irish housemaid Bridget, and is altogether fun to watch the entire time that she is onstage. She embraces a rock and roll persona that is full of bold and brash attitude while flooding the stage with her evocative vocals in numbers like "The Soul of the White Bird" and "Mercury Rising."

Playing Lizzie's older sister Emma, Natalie Charle Ellis proves that she is a vocal force to be reckoned with. While convincingly playing an embittered and surreptitiously cheeky character, Natalie Charle Ellis dazzles with her remarkably deep and power filled Alto range in numbers like "Sweet Little Sister" and "What the F**K Now, Lizzie?!"

Courtney Markowitz's performance as Lizzie's neighbor Alice is remarkably human and to a great extent moving. She demonstrates a beautiful upper register in her solos "If You Knew" and "Maybe Someday." She also exhibits a significant vocal clout in her emotional performance of "Will You Stay."

John Farrell's scenic design is perfectly simplistic, and allows focus to follow the performers. His use of two doors on opposite sides of the stage is highly effective in setting the tone of the cold and restrictive House of Borden and allows the tone to evolve after the murders.

The scenic design marries well with Joe McGuire's projection design and Jack Jacobs' lighting design to move the viewer in and out of the narrative framework. The projections utilized, such as the Borden's house and barn, are highly detailed and fit perfectly with the sparse scenic design. Incidentally, every so often the projections depart from the narrative framework. Brightly colored lights flash on stage, the live band is fully revealed, and the viewers are met with a blur of images and colors reminiscent of rock concert.

Costume design by Lisa Zinni is perfectly anachronistic. She draws a variety of textures and elements that resemble garments of the Victorian era, such as pronounced sleeves and bustles. However, like the music, the costumes are constructed with a modern twist and rock and roll flare. As the show progresses, Lisa Zinni's costume design cleverly transforms with the characters, further emphasizing their feminine nature and immodest deeds.

Sound design by Andrew Harper exceled in several areas, especially with the onstage acoustics of slamming doors and the mixed use of handheld and head microphones. The show is quite loud, but being an in-your-face rock musical it works quite well. However, there are times when the sound mixing could be more balanced. At times, the live band overpowers the vocalists and their words get lost in the process. Music director and conductor Jim Vukovich successfully leads the live band in a high energy and exhilarating performance.

LIZZIE is a theatre event that you do not want to miss. With a fresh concept, four powerhouse female vocalists, and music that will linger with you long after the last note, it is not like anything that you have seen before.

LIZZIE, presented by TUTS Underground, plays the Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 now through October 20, 2013. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 5:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.tutsunderground.com/ or call (713) 558-8887.

Photos by Christian Brown. Photos courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars.




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