News Column

'Lizzie' entertains as part quirky rock opera and part eye-rolling camp

October 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 17--The notion of the Lizzie Borden saga as a rock musical seems a natural for either of two extremes. It could be effective in an offbeat, edgy way. Or it could wind up a campy catastrophe, like the infamous Broadway musical "Carrie."

"Lizzie," which Theatre Under The Stars is producing as opening entry in its "Underground" series, falls somewhere in the middle, with a mix of potent moments and ridiculous ones.

First, the show and the protagonist could make their case a lot more effectively by turning down the volume a few notches. It's when the music goes full-out, head-banger rock that "Lizzie" is least interesting, all noisy attitude. When the performers are screaming rather than singing, and the onstage band is drowning them out anyway, you can't make out the words or the point.

Fortunately, authors Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner explore other shadings as well in this four-woman musical. Then the show feels more interesting and original, with cleverly ironic lyrics and some pretty cool music, including several haunting ballad tunes. Typifying this aspect of the show is the title character's strangely moving scene communing with her beloved pigeons in the loft of the barn, her avian friends beautifully suggested by projections.

Though Borden was famously accused of and tried for the 1892 ax murders of her father and his second wife, and was widely suspected to be guilty of the crimes, she was acquitted because no real evidence linked her to the deaths. Most dramatizations have stayed on the fence of did-she-or-didn't-she?

"Lizzie," in contrast, insists she chopped 'em up -- and the authors provide plenty of reasons for her and sister Emma to want the never-seen father and stepmother removed. Both sisters detest the stepmother and are furious to learn their father has changed his will to cut them out and leave everything to her. Meanwhile, Lizzie has fallen into a passionate affair with sexually progressive neighbor Elizabeth and is growing eager to break out of her family's repressive shell. When Lizzie's father kills all her beloved pigeons -- having warned her not to play with the "filthy" birds -- well, that's about all Lizzie can take.

Even within the intentionally anachronistic context of a rock musical about Victorian-era events, it's harder to buy the show's notion of the quiet, decorous Borden as an ahead-of-her-time rebel exploding in a campaign to wipe out the older generation and their restrictive rules. This leads to moments such as Emma's "What the ***--Now, Lizzie?!", repeatedly yelling that over-the-top line. It's funny in a tongue-in-cheek way, but it makes Lizzie's antics seem goofy rather than horrifying, and does that help dramatically?

The four singer-actresses are dynamite: Carrie Manolakos, all angst and attitude as Lizzie; Natalie Charle Ellis as the seething-with-fury Emma; Courtney Markowitz as the seductive Elizabeth; and Carrie Cimma, a hoot as the surly and sarcastic maid Bridget. All strong of voice and forceful of presence, they have been directed, and they perform, as if to convey the point that these are four women you do not want to mess with. At that, "Lizzie" certainly succeeds. I wouldn't allow any of these dangerous dames access to a fly swatter, much less an ax.

Kent Nicholson directs this essentially concert-style rendition, with punchy staging and resourceful embellishments that lend the sense of a more finished production.

The settings are suggested primarily through Joe McGuire's projections. These can be a bit obvious at times, as in psychedelic patterns for freakouts, or everything splashing bright red for violent turns. But at most points, they are inventive and evocative.

Lisa Zinni's punk costumes, however, struck me as extravagantly unflattering. Still, I'd rather be struck by them than by Lizzie.

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