Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lizzie Borden

LIZZIE BORDEN an intense evening of theatre at the 14th Street Theatre

“Lizzie Borden took an ax, gave her mother forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one.” That line from a caustic poem not only attempted to describe the 1892 murder of Borden’s parents, but became a limerick used gleefully by girls for jumping rope.

The grizzly murder, which, much like the modern day O.J. Simpson case, was sensationalized. And, like Simpson, Lizzie, with a clever defense, was acquitted.

The trial revealed the tale of a girl who might have been molested by her supposed miserly father, emotionally put upon by her step-mother, and might have been involved in an ongoing affair with her female next door neighbor. Even today, curiosity over the case has amateur sleuths searching for the truth.

Doesn’t sound like the basis for a musical, does it? Well, in the hands of music and book conceivers Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt, it turns out to be a fascinating topic. Add to that the dynamic talent of Baldwin Wallace College’s musical theatre students, and the creative and focused direction of Victoria Bussert, place the whole thing in the intimate 14th Street Theatre, and you have one hell of an exciting evening of theatre.

The score, composed of traditional and modern rock, as well as several ballads, carries the burden of the script. Few lines are spoken. The pounding music highlights the moods of the characters as well as beating the audience into psychological submission. The viewer is carried away emotionally with the unending intensity.

This is the kind of script that Bussert does so well. It’s quirky, allows for creativity in staging and character interpretation, and is well written.

The four-woman cast has been well-honed by Bussert. They are emotionally present at all times, never wavering from their excitement of telling the tale. The story is often visually gruesome, yet, there is comic relief. Lizzie, for example, pulverizes her father and step-mother’s skulls by her whacking away at pictures of the duo attached to watermelons. Audience members in the first few rows are given plastic ponchos in order to avoid the flying melon inners. Some appropriately overdone scenes add sadistic mirth.

In order to give students the needed live theatre experience, there are two casts. I saw the “Axe” group, so my comments can only describe that cast.

Shannon O’Boyle is pretty, innocent looking, and a perfect Lizzie. She doesn’t appear to be capable of such a heinous deed, but when she lets loose vocally and emotionally, you can believe that she whacked away. Her Maybe Someday/Gotta Get Out of Here was well-sung, foreshadowing what was to come.

Sophie Brown, as Bridget Sullivan, the family’s maid, played the role to the hilt. Her overdone butch demeanor helped create comic relief. Her The Fall Of The House of Borden was excellent.

Beautiful Ciara Renée, with her flashing eyes, menacing voice and severe body movements, gave a clear indication of the inner negative thoughts of Emma, Lizzie’s older sister. Sweet Little Sister, which was sung with O’Boyle, was beautifully interpreted.

Pretty Rachel Michelle Jones, as the Borden’s next door neighbor, and possibly Lizzie’s love interest, was convincing as Alice Russell. Will You Stay, sung with O’Boyle, was a beautifully interpreted love song.

The voices were universally wonderful. These young ladies are Broadway ready!

If there was one flaw in the production, it was the musical direction of Matthew Webb. Though the band was excellent, Webb failed to keep the musicians in check. Often the heavy sound of the music drowned out the performers. This is not a rock concert. We need to hear the words of the singers in order to grasp the meaning. In addition, he often upstaged the performers with his dancing while directing.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: LIZZIE BORDEN was yet another of those special productions resulting from the collaboration of PlayhouseSquare and BW. It’s too bad that the show was only presented for 4 performances, because this is the type of production that would have built a cult following. Bravos for Vickie Bussert and her BW students for a rocking evening of fine entertainment.