BWW Review: LIZZIE at the 5th Wall Theatre: Campy Carnage Has Entered The Basement...
Nearly 130 years have passed since Lizzie Borden, the diffident mondaine of Fall River, Massachusetts, presumably bludgeoned and hewed her pater and stepparent to death with a bladed hand tool.
Or, as the "Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay" folk rhyme more effectively brought these suspicions to the public consciousness:
"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."
Indeed, virtually no composition musing over Lizzie's acquitted exploits can proceed without the mentioning of that specific nursery limerick.
Perhaps that's why her story remains so freshly provocative: the harsh dichotomy of associating an innocent-sounding berceuse to such a gruesome incident (though Lizzie's verse was hardly without shadowy precedents: pieces like "Three Blind Mice" and "Ring Around the Rosie" carry some rather gloomy derivations of their own).
It's with such a deliberate use of stylistic duality - over and over again - that Director Keith Fitzgerald and his team bring Lizzie's curious tale to vivacious life in the rock musical LIZZIE, presented by the 5th Wall Theatre at The Basement.
While there has been no shortage of stage plays with rock tunes juxtaposed against arcanely historical settings (BLOODY, BLOODY Andrew Jackson, AIDA and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR just to name a few), LIZZIE, by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt, has an overall sound that carries a poppy distinction to the ear.
Almost entirely sung-through, LIZZIE's music seems to utilize an auditory pastiche between, say, the catchiness of the Go-Go's, the desperate scales of t.A.T.u., and the grandiosity of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman's repertoire, respectively. At least that's my personal take; and the lyrics aren't half bad either.
And in the spirit of polarizing conceits, Mr. Fitzgerald and Scenic Designer Vinnie Gonzalez have fashioned the setting into a traveling rock concert complete with promotional posters, microphones, mic stands, sound equipment crates, wheeled utility trunks, speakers, monitors, and the luminous presence of Musical Director Starlet Knight and her dynamic, five-person orchestra elevated above the corresponding dramatic action downstage.
This concept is simple and straightforward, with an all-female cast dressed in Alex Valentin's costumes that bring yet another eclectic layer to this spectacle.
Apart from Pualani "Lani" Felling and Morgan Lynn Meekins darkly clad as typical Roadies (who happen to voraciously sing their faces off), the general aesthetic given to Lizzie and her three Bay State, pre-Edwardian era cohorts is tailored towards a mixture of "Gibson Girls'" traditionalism and that of, perhaps, Grand Guignol-inspired depravity.
Such a pursuit of visual extremes is curiously appropriate for the emotional swings that these talented women - apart from being a cadre of fierce troubadours - dutifully muster within their characters.
Rachel Rose Gilmour commendably brings tactful calculation to her examination of the title role. Lizzie starts off as being melancholy and naive, yet softly resentful of her opportunistic stepmother. But sure enough, after the incident with the pigeons, Ms. Gilmour gradually lets Lizzie's convulsing and ferine impulses explode into the piercing closing anthem that is "13 Days In Taunton." She sounds beyond terrific.
Rachel Marrs brings slyness, wit and humor to Lizzie's more-grounded sister, Emma, and yet her regard for Lizzie comes off as caring and affectionate. Apart from her richly methodical performance, one number, "Watchmen For The Morning," Ms. Marrs' hymned duet with Ms. Gilmour, is particularly sweet-sounding.
Anne Michelle Forbes brings her effervescent voice to Alice Russell, Lizzie's neighbor and secret lover. Her character conjures the most innocence and pathos to the piece, especially with Ms. Forbes' treatment of the lovers' ballad, "Maybe Someday."
And Bridget "Maggie" Sullivan, the perceptive housemaid to the Borden's manor, is coolly played by Michaela Nicole (her rendition of "The Fall of The House of Borden" is a delightful dirge). Also, it is in Ms. Nicole's diligent portrayal where the multilayered emotional pallet of the play is leveled out between these four leads, regardless of the fact that all six actresses occasionally (and uproariously) indulge in hair-flipping, "metalhead" stage antics when the orchestra begins to righteously slay...
Mr. Fitzgerald has amassed a dynamite team in the service to a piece that, quite conceivably, could've started and ended as a studio album bereft of any staging or visuals.
With this in mind, a few other collaborators deserve shout-outs: one to Erin Barclay for her flashy light plots (a fine feat considering the conceptual gamut of this piece essentially being a rock concert within a two-act narrative), and an additional "kudos" to Joey Luck's masterful sound design (and board operations) for bringing such a precise balance between the vocals and the orchestra. Truly, never once did one spectrum drown the other out, even in the close confines of The Basement.
In closing - and with a final "tip of the hat" to stage management (and light operations) duties by Alison Devereaux - my most encompassing compliment goes to the entire production team for maintaining the desired equilibrium over all of the aforementioned elements within this singularly tempestuous musical. It hardly goes without saying that the stylistic pendulum of this kind of "rocky" piece can invariably pivot way too far into undesired territories of bloated excess.
Thus, it is to the credit of everyone associated with LIZZIE that a sane application of stability is maintained throughout the dramatic presentation of this unabashedly insane, off-kilter, and bloody event that grew (or perhaps festered) into the folkloric "singsong" of American infamy where it remains to this day.
The 5th Wall Theatre's presentation of LIZZIE plays through the 3rd of November, 2018.