Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte swung into its 30th season Wednesday with the premier of its all-female production of a rock musical about one of history’s most notorious alleged killers, Lizzie Borden.
Most people know through the morbid playground rhyme that Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax, but there’s much more to her story. Although a lot of it seems outlandish, much of “Lizzie” the musical is based in fact or at least long-held theories.
And Borden’s story is timely.
While the seed for “Lizzie” the musical was planted by its writers Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Tim Maner in the early `90s, with it evolving into a fully realized production over the next 25 years (with the assistance of Alan Steven Hewitt), its particularly relevant in the wake of the current female empowerment movement.
Originally conceived with four principal female singer-actors, Actor’s Theatre ups the estrogen with a full female production team from director Joanna Gerdy to the musicians that make up the band, the lighting and scenic designers and choreographer. And honestly, the men weren’t missed, especially on stage.
“Lizzie’s” cast is its biggest strength.
As young Lizzie, rising Davidson sixth grader Emma Lippiner drags her teddy bear across the stage at the top of the show before climbing to her perch on the second story of the set. Even her body language reads as creepy. The dark set adds to that creep factor with a ghostly swing projected onto the walls behind her as young Lizzie swings. Projections of the real Bordens, abstract designs and other subtle visuals appear on the backdrop throughout the show. My favorites were the skull-laced wallpaper and the not so subtle dripping blood.
We meet grown Lizzie (Katy Shepherd), her sister Emma (Kristin Jann-Fischer), their neighbor Alice (Roseline Ciatu Kromah) and the Borden’s maid (Shea) post-crime before the action flashes back to the days leading up to the murders.
Aesthetically it’s like Jane Eyre-meets-Hedwig. Period costumes give way to punk rock apparel and traditional musical elements like demonstrative theater vocals and meaningful refrains mingle with distorted guitars, psychedelic keys and a Janis Joplin-meets-the Runaways performance style with Shepherd in particular swinging her hair, prowling the stage and utilizing the rock star move playbook to its full extent.
All four of the main players have their strengths. Most of the dialogue is sung, but as Alice, Lizzie’s friend and love interest, its Kromah’s facial expressions that really communicate her longing and eventual inner struggle. Shea plays the Irish lass maid with witchy glee. As she encourages Lizzie’s impulses, the audience is never quite sure of her intentions. Jann-Fischer, brings needed lightness and a funny, snarky attitude to elder sister Emma.
“Lizzie” cobbles together details of the days leading up to the murder from trial testimony and wel-known theories from authors, films and historians as to the why and how.
Researching the actual crime after the premier, I found some of the most seemingly fantastical parts of the musical were based in fact or pulled directly from history. Her father Andrew Borden really did hack the heads off Lizzie’s beloved pigeons, for instance. Maybe that sent her off the deep end. She did donate much of her estate to a local animal rescue group upon her death in 1927.
The romance is based on rumor and the suggestion of incest is rooted in speculation.
Although also cutting edge (pun intended) in some ways, “Lizzie” is still anchored in tradition – meaning traditional theater goers will enjoy the production, the music and impressive vocal work. It sometimes echoes a concert with the four women grabbing microphones and dancing with mic stands.
The score emanating from the musicians poised behind the set, however, was rather quiet by comparison to the bold vocals. To translate as a grand rock musical and add sonic dynamics to the story’s emotional one, I want the drums and bass to hit me right in the chest when Lizzie swings her proverbial ax.