Sunday, October 1, 2017

LIZZIE • New Line Theatre

Just about everyone is familiar with the infamous story of Lizzie Borden, who went to trial for hacking her father and stepmother to death with a hatchet (or an axe, as the children’s rhyme goes). She was acquitted by a jury of 12 men in 1893, but the grisly details that came out during the trial transfixed the country, and after moving back to Fall River, Massachusetts, Borden was regarded with suspicion for the rest of her life. The story still captivates more than a century later, and New Line Theatre seems a fitting company to stage this defiant, mostly sung-through musical inspired by her, told in the language of unchecked rebellion -- straight-up rock.

The murders remain unsolved, but Lizzie collaborators Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt don’t attempt to dodge the question of Borden’s guilt -- that’s made pretty damn clear. But through a series of delectably catchy songs, delivered by a quartet of adept female leads, strong arguments are posed addressing Borden’s possible motivations, riffing off of historical accounts, long-held speculation and theories.

Lizzie (Anna Skidis Vargas).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Anna Skidis Vargas brandishes one of the strongest voices in town in the title role. Living under the same roof as her wealthy but stingy father and lowly regarded stepmother was no picnic. With a cold eye from the stepmother and abuse from her father, Lizzie faces menace at every turn. Skidis Vargas bends from powerless despair to seething anger in a blistering turn, assuming a disturbingly cool demeanor once her mind is made up. “This Is Not Love” and “Thirteen Days In Taunton” are among her most impressive.

An observer’s view is provided by Kimi Short as Bridget, the Borden’s Irish maid. A cagey Short sustains a thinly cloaked disdain for the Bordens, but so would you if they insisted on calling you “Maggie”, the name of their previous maid, because they’re too lazy to learn yours despite years of service. Bridget introduces us to the family in “The House of Borden”, and Lizzie and Bridget’s talk of household poisons, the haunting duet “Shattercane and Velvet Grass”, is a highlight.

Bridget (Kimi Short).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
A perfectly cast Larissa White is Alice, a neighbor and close friend of Lizzie’s. Her character’s feelings for Lizzie are unblushing, from heartfelt longing in a soaring “If You Knew”, to frustrated agitation in “Questions Questions”. White is an endless source of energy whenever she’s onstage.

Marcy Wiegert is Lizzie’s older sister, Emma. Her hatred for her stepmother is palpable (especially when she discovers that “Mrs. Borden” is trying to shut her and Lizzie out of her father’s will), and Wiegert’s performance bristles with attitude. Driving numbers like the protective “Sweet Little Sister” and the desperate “What the F**k Now, Lizzie?!” are tempered with beautifully harmonized duets, particularly “Burn the Old Thing Up” -- a calculated attempt to get rid of any incriminating evidence.

Director, Mike Dowdy-Windsor, strikes a balance between rock concert and musical, using handheld microphones but incorporating some nice staging into the mix, bringing out bold performances from the leads. Under Sarah Nelson’s musical direction, the versatile six-piece band sounded a little tentative during the more raucous numbers early on, but matched the high voltage goings on by the middle of the first act. Rob Lippert’s scenic design of angled platforms, steel joists and wooden planks are decorated with portraits of the Borden patriarch and stepmother, along with the Borden family crest, enhanced by his concert-style lighting design. Sarah Porter’s punk-rock costumes are superbly spot-on, differentiating each character perfectly.

Alice (Larissa White).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
No one will ever know precisely what went down in the House of Borden back in 1892, but this heady retelling will force any condemnation to the back seat. Basking in the glow of Lizzie’s liberation is much more gratifying. It’s playing until the 21st. Don’t walk, run to see it.

• Yes, the song list includes a searing little ditty called “Why Are All These Heads Off?” about an unfortunate incident with Lizzie’s beloved pigeons.

Music/lyrics: Steven Cheslik-deMeyer
Book/lyrics and additional music by Tim Maner
Music/additional lyrics by Alan Stevens Hewitt
Directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive
through October 21 | tickets: $15 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm
$20 for adults and $15 for students/seniors on Thursdays; and $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors on Fridays and Saturdays.

Emma (Marcy Wiegert).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Lizzie Borden: Anna Skidis Vargas
Bridget Sullivan: Kimi Short
Alice Russell: Larissa White
Emma Borden: Marcy Wiegert

Music Director: Sarah Nelson
Stage Manager: Erin Goodenough
Scenic & Lighting Designer: Rob Lippert
Costume Designer: Sarah Porter
Sound Designer: Ryan Day
Props Master: Alison Helmer
Scenic Artists: Richard Brown, Nick Brunstein and Kate Wilkerson
Volunteer Coordinator: Alison Helmer
Graphic Designer: Matt Reedy
Photographer: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The New Line Band
Conductor/Piano: Sarah Nelson
Lizzie (Anna Skidis Vargas), Bridget (Kimi Short)
and Emma (Marcy Wiegert).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Guitar: D. Mike Bauer
Bass: Jake Heberlie
Cello: Emily Trista Lane
Percussion: Clancy Newell
Keyboard/Guitar: Jake Stergos

Lizzie (Anna Skidis Vargas), Bridget (Kimi Short),
Alice (Larissa White) and Emma (Marcy Wiegert).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg

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