Lizzie Borden @ Living Theatre, New York

cast list
Marie-France Arcilla, Lisa Birnbaum, Carrie Cimma, Jenny Fellner

directed by
Tim Maner
Fans of folk tales and legends should take an instant shine to Lizzie Borden, the new rock musical version of the title character’s legendary story, focusing on her alleged murder of her own mother and father in 1892 and the trial that followed.

The show incorporates the sing-songy rhyme that has followed the Borden story ever since its occurrence (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/Gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her father forty-one”), but its score – which is in the vein of Spring Awakening‘s angsty punk tone – is more complicated and fulfilling than that, filling the Living Theatre’s limited space with wall-to-wall sound.
Rather than approaching the story conventionally, the authors – Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner – focus solely on the women’s perspective on events. Lizzie is, of course, a character, as are her sister Emma, her neighbor (and love interest) Alice Russell, and the Borden family’s no-nonsense servant Bridget Sullivan. Excluding the parents as characters allows the story to blossom as a tale of why Lizzie did what she did rather than how, a smart choice for the piece as a whole.

Jenny Fellner (of last season’s Pal Joey on Broadway), is properly angsty as Lizzie, making the transformation – thanks to Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s smart costume designs – from simple girl to goth-punk murderess after the first act, which ends in her parents’ slaughter. Lisa Birnbaum rocks hard as her sister Emma, serving up the song Sweet Little Sister with suitable vocal athletics. Marie-France Arcilla and Carrie Cimma round out an all-around stellar cast, each with her own quirky individual strengths.

Though the story is somewhat overpowered by the show’s score, which suffers occasionally from the murky acoustics of the space, there are still moments of brilliance to be found here, particularly in the door-slamming power of the opening number, Forty Whacks, in the behind-a-curtain murder of Lizzie’s parents, and in the stirring second-act quartet, Questions, Questions, which focuses on Lizzie’s trial from the perspectives of each of the characters and their questioners.

Tim Maner’s smart direction keeps the show propelling toward its stirring conclusion with the song Where Are You Lizzie?, an angsty 80s-style ballad that finds our antiheroine rocking out in a white dress, hair blowing in the wind as the others mourn her legacy. That the authors of the musical version of her story have made Lizzie such a compelling, complicated (but also hard-rocking) character – by no means excused of guilt but wholly understandable – is a testament not only to their talent but to the endurance of Lizzie’s bloody story over the years.

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