BWW Review: Infamous Scandal Gets Punk Rock Concert Treatment in LIZZIE THE MUSICAL at Chance Theater
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I knew very little regarding the infamous Lizzie Borden prior to seeing the relatively new titular stage show about her called LIZZIE THE MUSICAL.
The small bit of common info I did know is the quick surface summation of the notorious Borden: that as a young woman, she was charged with---but later acquitted of---the brutal axe murders of her father and stepmother in their home located in the quiet little town of Fall River, Massachusetts.
The horrific, bloody nature of the crime that took place in August of 1892---and the subsequent trial that began in June of 1893 that sought to convict Borden as the sole perpetrator of the killings---drew a rather sizable amount of national attention for its time, almost comparable to many similarly salacious 20th- and 21st-Century murder trials that today routinely garner wall-to-wall coverage on news networks and social media.
This infamy, naturally, contributed to Borden becoming a mini-celebrity in her hey-day, even inspiring a rather crude "nursery rhyme" that little children would recite with glee rather than with fear during sessions with a jump rope:
"Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks, When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one."
Thus, since strong curiosity and speculation remain til this day about the tragic (and, some say, still unsolved) events that took place more than a century ago, countless retellings of Borden's story has become an often revisited pastime in pop culture using a variety of different mediums---everything from movies and television to literature and, yes, stage works---all hoping to shed new light on a very familiar but still mystery-laden trope.
The latest iteration of her infamous story is, arguably, its most out-of-the-box depiction yet... an engaging, ferociously explosive punk rock opera devised by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, which was initially presented in 2010 at the National Alliance of Musical Theater's Festival of New Musicals, followed by subsequent full productions at the Village Theatre, Theatre Under the Stars, and the Portland Center Stage. Currently, the show is now having its regional premiere performances at Chance Theater in Anaheim through March 3, 2019, directed with intriguing, cheeky audacity by Jocelyn Brown.
From its dark hued, sharp-edged, multi-level scaffolding-meets-prison yard set design by Kristin Campbell to its decibel-cracking. agro-head-banging scream-rock orchestrations by Hewitt, LIZZIE THE MUSICAL---in visuals, in musicality, and in sheer, unapologetic attitude---is definitely not a sunshine-and-rainbows kind of musical. Here, anger, rage, lust, manic heartbreak, and female empowerment expressed in high-energy, palpably electric performances plow through the chaos to set a tone that reveals a tense storm of emotions.
If you're looking to scrutinize the minutiae of or learn more about the accurate historical details and investigational background of the real-life events that inspired the foundation of the show, then this punk-rock musical may not be the first thing you should see about Lizzie Borden---though more adventurous theatergoers who do decide to surrender to LIZZIE THE MUSICAL's highly stylized and hypnotic machinations will be rewarded nonetheless with an exciting experience. To be sure, it is definitely the most caffeinated one you'll take in if you do decide to stick with it.
Rife with dramatized innuendos, "what if" scenarios, and highly invented/speculative story points, LIZZIE THE MUSICAL flagrantly tethers itself to rumors rather than facts (though some factual accounts do make the cut). With truth indistinguishable from the lies, the "story" is presented from the "uncensored" first-person perspectives of just four characters---all of whom are women armed with their own agendas and motivations for everything we see them do and say.
Unlike other retellings of Borden's story---which focuses mostly on the expected procedural matters regarding the horrific murders and the trial that follows---LIZZIE THE MUSICAL routinely breaks the fourth wall with their presented perspectives, and no one else but these four gets a say in what may or may not have happened. Heck, we don't even get to see or hear from the murder victims prior to their offing nor the confounded authorities tasked with the investigation, lest they invade the proceedings to taint our pre-curated version of the events.
One thing is for sure: all four voracious women---played by a compelling, fiercely talented foursome with rockstar voices and personas that you can't help but cheer on---have a lot to say (well, sing) and they're completely at ease to express what is exactly on their mind---well, at least to Present Company, us, the audience. In their hands, we are presented with a highly-charged rock concert with the hint of their involvement in the story bubbling underneath its explosively-delivered tunes. I even dare say that because all four women are instrumental---at least in this iteration---of making sure Lizzie doesn't get convicted, each one could also have been a viable suspect.
The titular character is, of course, the important center in which all the women in the musical revolve around. A victim of abuse and neglect since her early youth, Lizzie suddenly (and, perhaps, rightfully in a very demented way) gains confidence after the death of her father and stepmother---but did she actually do the deed? Is this new-found elation a sign that she did kill them?
Though signs don't quite point to yes, this musical offers the supposition that it is indeed quite possible, given the circumstances---especially when you're surrounded by three highly influential women who all seem to guide her every decision.
Once again, I am incredibly impressed by the excellent Monika Peña, a frequent Chance Theater artist who plays Lizzie with a relatable sensitivity that slowly stokes a fiery, bubbling aggravation that is mesmerizing to watch unfold. Of course, it helps that she has the singing pipes to truly realize this metamorphosis.
Joining her to rock the eff out---sometimes with SPRING AWAKENING-style microphones whipped out from their bodices---include the intriguing Alli Rose Schynert who plays Lizzie's older, perpetually suspicious sister Emma; the playfully bawdy Nicole Gentile as the humorously snarky Irish household maid Bridget, whose skills include planting seeds of ideas and providing items and objects at the most opportune time; and lastly the enchanting Jisel Soleil Ayon who plays the Borden's ever-watchful (and gorgeously-voiced) neighbor Alice Russell, who---surprise plot twist!---has the hots for Lizzie. This newly "revealed" romance between Alice and Lizzie adds yet another layer to the complex persona of this more interesting character, for sure.
Aside from the four intense characters that voice their emotions out loud for all to hear, I'd like to think LIZZIE THE MUSICAL has another character in the form of KC Wilkerson's lighting design in the show. Never have I seen lighting and projection play such a significant and extremely plot-manipulating role before and it is just extraordinary here. Also worth noting: Hazel Clarke's energetic choreography, as well as Rachael Lorenzetti's intriguingly textured, vividly transformational costumes that adorn the cast, which starts with typical Victorian garb but then is slowly but meticulously discarded to reveal more of the punk-rock, Goth-slash-BDSM-lite inspired frocks bathed in a charred palette that mirrors each character's burgeoning bawdiness and ferocity.
Kudos also to sound designer Ryan Brodkin for providing arena rock stadium sound to such a small space---allowing the awesome in-house band led by musical director Robyn Manion to provide the show and these ladies a piercing hard rock score they deserve. I have to admit that while I enjoyed the cast musical performances tremendously, I was also enjoying the sight of Manion rocking out and slamming her head to the beat like a frikkin rock star throughout the show. This punk rock sisterhood is for real.
While, sure, LIZZIE THE MUSICAL may not be the definitive version of the Lizzie Borden saga that is painstakingly researched with facts, court transcripts, and news reports, what it does present is a raucously entertaining rock opera that is highly stylized, purposely overdone, and intensely performed in all the right ways. Somehow the creators of this musical have valiantly made the case for creating a punk rock musical surrounding the fascinating macabre story and it doesn't come off as odd, awkward, or cheesy.
With this current production, Chance Theater once again proves that it has the wherewithal to champion fringe musicals like this, TRIASSIC PARQ, and BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson, with an aim to expose them to newer audiences yearning for something fresh. Never would I have imagined that I would enjoy a punk-rock musical about a girl who was accused of allegedly axing her parents, and yet... here we are. If you're yearning to rock out listening to four spectacular voices, then you need to get yourself to the Chance Theater now.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from Chance Theater's production of LIZZIE THE MUSICAL by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.
Chance Theater's Production of LIZZIE THE MUSICAL continues on the Crime Stage through March 3, 2019. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.