BWW Review: New Line Theatre's Excellent LIZZIE Rocks Hard!
LIZZIE is a unique musical experience, and I was absolutely blown away by it. The product of the team of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, who all contributed to the book, music, lyrics and orchestrations; it's a true rock opera. Watching and listening to this powerful show is like discovering a forgotten concept album from the past, and I'm amazed that no group from rock's rich history ever tackled the subject of Lizzie Borden before, although I could be wrong about that. But you have to realize that none of those predominately male-dominated groups of the late 60's, 70's and early 80's, who were churning out double or triple albums with a narrative thread, had four female vocalists who could take on the various roles that are present here, and not with such a degree of variety. Some selections remind me of blistering Iron Maiden type material, and some have that Runaways vibe, and some are definitely arena rock, but there are also songs that are chamber-pop in style; delicate and rich with harmony. New Line Theatre has put together a production that's like the coolest rock concert ever, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I remember watching Elizabeth Montgomery (Samantha from Bewitched) take on the role of Lizzie Borden in an excellent, and more than a little titillating, TV movie many years ago, but that didn't prepare me for the onslaught that is LIZZIE. In this telling of the tale there is no ambiguity; Lizzie is definitely guilty of the crime of killing her stepmother and overbearing, possibly incestuous, father with an ax. She may wind up acquitted in the end, which is in keeping with the actual historical outcome, but she is unrepentant and fierce beneath her calm facade.
The quartet of Anna Skidis Vargas, Kimi Short, Larissa White, and Marcy Wiegert deliver excellent, highly energized performances. Each is exceptional in their portrayals, giving a punk/goth ethos to their characters that plays well with a modern audience. Vargas soulfully wails as Lizzie, delivering strong vocals throughout, and drawing our sympathy as certain elements of her relationship with her father are brought to the fore. Short's edgy work as the housekeeper Bridget Sullivan sets the tone early, as she and the company tell the story of "The House of Borden." Larissa White shines often as neighbor Alice Russell, and does superb work on some of the softer material like "If You Knew" and "Maybe Someday." The possibility of a lesbian relationship between her and Borden is explored, and adds an interesting wrinkle to the development of this take on the story. Marcy Wiegert is equally strong and savage in her role as Lizzie's older sister Emma, and her fiery duet with Vargas on "What the Fuck Now, Lizzie" heats up the second act as the investigation begins.
Director Mike Dowdy-Windsor stages the show like a highly theatrical concert, with the actresses working with handheld microphones as they stalk the stage and interact. There's also a palpable intensity present, and it never lets up under his watch. The performances he draws are engaging and unrelenting in their passion and fury. Of course, he does have a terrific cast to work with, and also an unbelievable band. Music director/Conductor/ Pianist Sarah Nelson's work here is amazing, tackling a score that's all over the map, and somehow making it all flow seamlessly. Nelson is aided immensely by the musical talents of D. Mike Bauer (guitar), Jake Heberlie (bass), Emily Trista Lane (cello), Clancy Newell (percussion), and Jake Stergos (keyboard, guitar). Lane's cello is particularly affecting, giving the heavier material depth, the atmospheric material dissonance, and the softer stuff a sparkling sheen. Rob Lippert's scenic design makes good use of the space, keeping the action elevated slightly above, and surrounding, the band. Lippert's lighting switches moods on a dime, and blindingly blacks out in true rock star fashion. Sarah Porter's costumes carry forward the punk/metal/goth feel that permeates the music, and utilizes a cool and fitting palette of black, pink, and red. Ryan Day's sound design is very sharp and clear, although I wouldn't mind if the band was cranked up way loud, since this show just begs for ear-splitting volume.
New Line Theatre's production of LIZZIE is a creative and imaginative juggernaut that is led by a stellar creative team, and some magnificently talented actresses and musicians. I say it all the time with New Line shows, but this one rocks especially hard. Get out and see it, repeatedly!
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg