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Review: Jobsite Theater's LIZZIE: A KILLER ROCK MUSICAL at the Jaeb - It's To Die For!

Rock music has rarely lent itself well to stage musicals. Due to being boxed in by plot and character, it's hard to let loose and be totally rockin' in such a structured medium. One of rock's first winks in a musical can be found in West Side Story, particularly the song "Cool," but it comes across jazzy and Bernstein bombastic, not rock. The otherwise traditional Bye, Bye Birdie is a joke when it comes to its rock moments, even if "Honestly Sincere" is supposed to be an Elvis knockoff (it's like a knockoff of an Elvis knockoff). Hair actually seemed dated when it was first performed, as did Rent nearly thirty years later; both shows work best as period pieces. Even Tommy's 1993 stage version didn't rock nearly as well as the original 1969 album by the Who. Rock of Ages captures 80's Hair Band raucousness with its verve (it gets the energy, but is naturally earthbound by its storyline), and a show like American Idiot seems to tame Green Day by its very nature. Don't get me wrong; there are a lot of great rock musicals. They just don't come across as authentic. (R&B and hip-hop seem to have fared much better in the stage musical format than the volcanic rage of real rock.)

All of this leads to Jobsite Theater's ballsy production of Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer's, Tim Maner's, and Alan Stevens Hewitt's LIZZIE, directed by David Jenkins and featuring four imposing women with roaring, roof-rattling vocals. This show comes close to correctly capturing that rock experience that few musicals have been able to, merging murder and a pumping rock score. "It's incredibly dark," I overheard a lady at a table near me say at intermission. I didn't know what she was expecting with a title like LIZZIE. This isn't the musical version of Little Women nor is it Song of Norway. This is a Victorian bloodbath, Spring Awakening meets Helter Skelter. It's like In Cold Blood as sung by the Wilson sisters of Heart, or Pat Benatar meets serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

For a show like this, you need big voices. And Jobsite has lucked out with four women who can belt rock with gusto. It's a galvanizing look at one of the most famous murders in American history.

We all know the demented Lizzie Borden children's rhyme (that starts and ends the show in the song "Forty Whacks"): "Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks...When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one." Although this is in no way a history lesson or even historically accurate, it's a rollicking recreation of the moments leading up to the bloodshed and occurring after the parents' murders (up to Lizzie's acquittal). The show even explores Borden's secret love affair with Alice. (It is a sad commentary on our world that some audience members seem fine with matricide and patricide but draw the line when it comes to lesbian undertones and overtones.)

Colleen Cherry makes for an effective Lizzie Borden. After seeing her in a supporting role in Jobsite's Silence: The Musical last year, I wrote that she had "Charles Manson eyes." And those wild eyes come to life even more here (she seems to conjure up rock goddess Grace Slick and Manson girl Leslie Van Houten). And Cherry can sing; she hits some notes that are out of this world. Although we understand the hysteria that leads to the killing, we rarely if ever feel for her. Drops of empathy are there, but not as much as we may want (yes, I don't care who you are, whether it's on the side of the saints like Gandhi or the notorious like Lizzie Borden, but we should feel empathy for the characters in a show, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us).

As her sister, Emma, the amazing Heather Krueger once again proves why she is one of our area's beloved treasures, though sometimes her part gets overshadowed by some of the others onstage. Her "What the F**k Now, Lizzie?!" sizzles. And Christina Capehart is magnificent as Alice. I saw Capehart as a hard rockin' Judas in Eight O'Clock Theatre's Jesus Christ Superstar last spring, and she was a force of nature onstage (she out-rocked the original Judas, Murray Head, the way Fats Domino out-rocked Pat Boone). Here, she's just incredible. As the lover of Lizzie who is the witness who saw her burn a "paint" splattered dress, Capehart has some serious pipes and uses her ferocious belt so effectively.

The find of the season is Fo'i Meleah, who portrays the Borden's maid, Bridget. This is a goose bump performance if there ever was one, the one we recall as we walk out of the theatre, dazed and bludgeoned by the horrors in Borden Land. Her "Mercury Rising" is to die for.

David Jenkins beautifully guides this production and lets his foursome loose. Brian Smallheer's set looks like an unfinished erector set as well as some sort of post-apocalyptic gallows. Imagine a macabre Starlight Express set without the roller skates. Reuben Hirsch's lighting is accomplished, and images on two separate video screens (birds in flight, floating feathers, as well as photographs of the soon-to-be murder victims) work well in telling the story.

Alison Burns' choreography is creative, and Jeremy Douglass' musical direction is utterly inspired. This is one tight band, led by guitarist Mark Warren: Woody Bond on drums, Nader Issa on bass, Tom Kersey on cello, Rebekah Pulley on guitar and Douglass himself on the keyboards.

The show is not perfect, and the songs have a certain sameness to them that makes it sometimes tedious by Act 2. (There was no song list in the program, and it's difficult to differentiate the songs in a little-known musical like this.) Obviously if you don't have four champion actresses and belters accompanied by a high-octane band, then you don't have a show. But Jobsite doesn't have to worry about that. LIZZIE is worth the venture to hear one of the most amazing local vocal quartets. It's as if Heart, Stevie Nicks, Pat Benatar and the Runaways all got together to tell this very dark tale of one of the most famous Victorian era murders. These incredible actresses sing their hearts out, and the audience rewards them with an immediate, deserved standing ovation. Stevie, Pat, and the Wilson sisters would surely approve.

LIZZIE: A KILLER ROCK MUSICAL plays in the Jaeb Theater at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts until November 6th.

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in ... (read more about this author)

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