BWW Reviews: LIZZIE Is a Bloody Mess at Portland Center Stage

There are times I would really just like to sit down with the creators of the shows I see and ask them what exactly they had in mind when they set out to create the play. I can imagine someone wanting to create a drama about the ever-mysterious case of Lizzie Borden, but a rock musical? It seemed like an odd concept even before I saw the show, and now...I'm even more confused.

First of all, Lizzie doesn't even pretend to have a plot. It's about the songs, all twenty of them (plus reprises). Some of the songs rock, some are tender, but very few of them have even the slightest connection to Ms. Borden. There is a little bit of dialogue in between to give the songs a bit of context, but it's laughable, and the actresses don't try very hard to put it over.

Second, the tone throughout is one of parody, satire, and camp, as if the creators realized the absurdity of what they were trying to do and instead chose to mock it. It is possible to do a rock show about an era that predates rock - think of Spring Awakening, Evita, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - but these fellows don't seem to know what rock has to do with Lizzie Borden. The writers have come to the conclusion that Lizzie's father saw her fooling around with her friend Alice and chopped the heads off of her pet birds with an axe. This is communicated in a song called "Why Are All These Heads Off?" Or else Lizzie may have been upset that her father had left all of his money to her stepmother in his new will.

The staging, by Rose Riordan, is very simple. We're at a rock concert. The lighting, the staging, and the performances are that of a four-woman rock group wearing 19th century costumes. The band is visible (and very good), the actresses sometimes use hand mikes and mike stands, and the lights flash in ways that are designed to make you yell out. There are even roadies to help get the mikes on and off stage (and why, when the actresses are clearly body miked?).

Some of the songs are terrific. And the four women putting them over are all quite talented. Carrie Cimma, as the Bordens' Irish maid, is the most comfortable with the style; she clearly knows her way around a mike, and she rocks out with abandon. She delivers her lines in a creditable Irish brogue, and knows how to play for laughs without slipping into campiness. Leslie McDonel, as Lizzie's sister Emma, has the most straitlaced role, but she eventually gets her big moment in Act Two with a song that I can only refer to as "WTF," which is one of the best and funniest moments in the piece. Kacie Sheik, as Alice, gets most of the ballads as she tries to get Lizzie to notice her, and she has a lovely voice, but she's definitely not comfortable in the rowdier songs.

I felt empathy for Mary Kate Morrissey as Lizzie. Here is a lovely and gifted actress with a phenomenal singing voice, and she's game for whatever she's asked to do. And what is she asked to do? She shakes and twitches to show us that Lizzie is unstable. She swings a giant axe that comes down from the flies. She sings all night in a variety of styles, dances all over the stage, and tries very hard to convince us that this is a character. It's not - it's not even a concept - but that's not Morrissey's fault. I never felt she was comfortable with the piece, but how could she be?

As I said, some of the individual songs are not bad. The ballads have warmth, and the rowdier songs are fun to listen to. The actresses sing well and give us their all, and you can't help cheering for them at the end. But what on earth any of this has to do with a murder in Massachusetts in 1892 I can't imagine. And neither could the authors, which is the whole problem.

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From This Author Patrick Brassell

Patrick Brassell is the author of five published novels and five produced plays. He has directed, produced, and designed sound for about fifty theater productions, (read more...)

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