Chicago Theatre Review
Lizzie – Firebrand Theatre
Opening with the familiar sing-song refrain of the childish rhyme, “Lizzie Border took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks; and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41,” Firebrand Theatre’s inaugural production sets the intimate Bookspan venue of Wicker Park’s Den Theatre ablaze. This dark, adult, Gothic musical is like a hybrid of “Sweeney Todd” and “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” with a touch of “Spring Awakening.” It is, in a word, awesome!
Primarily a sung-through spectacular, this raucous rock musical began life in 1990 as an experimental, four-song theatrical rock concert by Tim Maner and Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer. It was presented at Mythic Theatre’s American Living Room Festival. Within time, the show increased into a one-act and, eventually, evolved into a full-length musical, featuring an overhauled book and a batch of new songs. Alan Stevens Hewitt composed more music, added some additional lyrics and arranged the orchestrations for this new version of the musical. The result is a big, loud rock show that owes its sound to the rock bands of the 80’s; but it’s now a musical that tells a story. After several venues, the show finally had its big premiere, kicking off Houston’s TUTS Underground season. And now Chicago gets to see and hear this extraordinary musical.
On the morning of August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Abby Borden, Lizzie’s stepmother, and Andrew Borden were brutally murdered in their home. There are many theories about who actually committed the crime and the motivation behind it. Lizzie and her older sister Emma hated their stepmother and believed she only married their father for his fortune. It was surmised that Mr. Borden had changed his will to leave everything to his second wife. It’s also speculated that Andrew Borden may have been cruel and sexually abusive to Lizzie. He may have suspected his youngest daughter of having too intimate a relationship with Alice, Lizzie’s best friend and next door neighbor. This is the story of the first tabloid murder case.
Bridget, the Borden’s maid was suspicious of Lizzie’s behavior, and told the authorities as much. Miss Borden was arrested for the crime and spent time in the Fall River jail, until her trial. But the investigation was seriously botched. No murder weapon was ever discovered; there was no blood linked to the suspect; and Lizzie’s inquest testimony was ruled inadmissible. She was ultimately exonerated and spent the rest of her life living in her hometown. Lizzie Borden was ostracized by her neighbors and eventually died friendless and alone in 1927.
The account of this unsolved mystery has become an American legend. The story has taken on many different forms. It became the salacious source for countless academic studies, short stories, books, plays, a ballet, an opera and even a made-for-TV movie. Even the family house at 92 Second Avenue has been turned into a popular museum and bed and breakfast. Now it resurfaces as the premiere production of a brand new theatre company, dedicated to empowering women. Their choice as a season opener fits the theatre’s mission like a glove. It’s a dark, grisly, gory punk rock opera, laced with mystery and forbidden sexuality.
Victoria Bussert has been brought in to direct this production. She’s masterfully guided her four actors, with Andra Velis Simon in charge of musical direction and the conductor of the onstage, six-member rock band. The whole production is moody, sharp and doesn’t miss a beat. Although sometimes the microphone stands and use of hand mics seems to stifle some of the interaction between characters, it intensifies the concept that this historical event has been transformed into a rock concert. The staging is greatly aided by immensely talented movement advisor, Janet Louer. Her choreography is dramatic and spot-on.
The production takes place on Eleanor Kahn’s sparse scenic design, composed of a blackened stage and a few pieces of scenery. They include a massive throne-like chair and two narrow tables. The whole effect is a mysterious, murky cavern of darkness, spattered everywhere with blood red paint. Maya Michele Fein’s lit this production with a mixture of concert lighting and eerie haunted house shadows and light. Her impressive, creative chandelier made of birdcages, filled with lights that flicker, hangs before the proscenium. It’s not only imaginative and elegant, but it becomes a metaphor for the two Borden daughters who feel trapped in their own home. Charlotte Yetmann’s detailed Victorian costumes, for act I, give way to a sexy black wardrobe of S&M-inspired leather, lace and studs. There’s a Rocky Horror look to whole show that inspires twisted thrills and terror.
The cast is comprised of four magnificent, commanding vocalists, who not only fully understand their characters but the theatricality of this entire event, as well. Lizzie is portrayed by Liz Chidester, a stunning, talented actress of great vocal power and diversity, who charmed audiences earlier in Refuge Theatre’s “High Fidelity.” She’s the glue that holds this production together. She’s ably supported by gifted, steamy songstress Camille Robinson, as Lizzie’s suspicious, conniving older sister, Emma. Ms. Robinson entertained audiences in American Blues’ “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Jacquelyne Jones, who made a name for herself in Writers Theatre’s “Company” and Theo Ubique’s “Honky Tonk Angels,” is unbelievably brilliant as Lizzie’s best friend, Alice. She’s cautious but filled with devotion and love for her friend. And, as faithful housemaid Bridget, Leah Davis sings the bejesus out of this score. She’ll be remembered for her stellar roles in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “In the Heights” and Metropolis’s “Hair.” Ms. Davis creates much of the doubt and mystery of this story, as well as the bits of humor. All four of these triple-threats are powerhouse vocalists, talented actresses and capable movers. They form a well-cast quartet that is all Grrrl Power and drop dead perfection.
This production is an auspicious beginning for a brand new theatre. It’s exciting to witness the birth of such a unique company, entirely devoted to empowering and employing women, and demonstrating the power and talent of feminine artists from every walk of life. If this first production is any indication of what Chicago is in store for during upcoming shows and future seasons, we’re in for a truly magnificent new experience. This Equity ensemble will, throughout the year, be just like Lizzie Borden and knock ‘em dead.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 14-December 17 by Firebrand Theatre at the Den Theatre, 1329-1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 773-697-3830 or by going to www.firebrandtheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.