REVIEW: LIZZIE, The Musical - Chance Theater
Updated: May 7, 2019
"...We want it loud, sexy, bloody, angry, creepy, funny, rebellious, and thoroughly entertaining.”
Disclaimer: If you’re doing date night, this show might not be right for you. But if you’re looking for a hard rockin’ night out with some of the world’s best belt-out-loud vocal performers, done with sizzle and attitude, then “LIZZIE” is most certainly calling you.
Now blowing the roof off the Chance Theater in Anaheim through March 3rd, this gothic rock ritual is the story of Lizzie Borden, a young woman who is thought to have murdered her father and stepmother in 1892. While her legend has largely faded today to a half-remembered playground song, the "40 whacks" that Sunday School teacher Lizzie Borden gave her father Andrew and stepmother Abbey with an axe over a century ago continues to resonate even today, especially with the public’s modern obsession with shock and gore.
There have been many theories regarding Lizzie’s potential motives, including that she was the victim of incest at the hand of her father, or perhaps she was angry with him for killing her pet pigeons, or simply sick of his strict and rigid ways, and ready to inherit his wealth and stop living under his thumb. None of these theories can be proven – but that only adds to the mystique.
”LIZZIE, The Musical” began life in the early ‘90s as a four-song experimental theater/rock show hybrid, created by writer/director Tim Maner and songwriter/lyricists Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens-Hewitt as a piece of living room musical theater. Taking inspiration from riot grrrl music, old school politics, and '70s girl punk, they continued developing the show and on one very sweaty summer night in 2009, four women in front of a four-piece rock band took the stage in a hot factory in Soho, an axe descended from the ceiling, blood was spilled, and LIZZIE was born. Its virtuosic metal punk roots are now rock solid, having had several European and American tours. Again, this is not Broadway style pop rock. This is full out, in-your-face punk presented with pretense and wall-rattling glee. So, if your idea of a rock musical is stuck at “Hair” and the Age of Aquarius, you mind find “LIZZIE” to be strong medicine.
But if punk and heavy metal ring your bells, you are going to LOVE this concert. Mostly sung-through, except for a splattering of dialogue, the show is supported by a strong booyah band and four singers up front who really know how to yell. Together, under the direction of Jocelyn A. Brown, they tell the chilling story of axe-wielding double-murderess Lizzie Borden, who “whacked” her parents and then got away with it. The first half is a tense build up to the murderous act itself – leading to a shocking and unexpected blood soaked finale.
The rest of the time they shoot the moon. This music may not cater to the common idea of sophisticated taste, but for the genre, it can’t be performed any better or more respectfully than this. Music Director Robyn Manion (“Parade”/”Violet”/”Big Fish”) handles the keyboards, with Jacob Gonzalez (Madison Grove Band) on lead guitar, Jimmy Beall on bass, Jorge Zuniga on drums/percussion, and Lorianne Frelly on cello. Tucked on the back wall in the shadows, the band plays every bit a starring role in the show as much as the cast, especially when Gonzalez comes in front to accompany the singers with mind-bending guitar riffs. With a head-splitting, throbbing bass and guitar-led score that immediately shakes you up…this is 90 minutes of delightfully over-the-top, drooling poodle rock!
But, of course, it’s all about the singers - Monika Peña as Lizzie Borden, Jisel Soleil Ayon as Alice Russell, Nicole Gentile as Bridget Sullivan and Alli Rose Schynert as Emma Borden. This phenomenal quartet of women, full of smoldering angst and intensity, goes all out with their over-the-top punk scream singing.
“...The book is almost entirely adapted from court transcripts. You hear the women speak in their own words. But when they sing...that’s us giving voice to the other side of the Lizzie story, the rumors, the innuendo, the theories, the jump rope rhyme, the legend that she became. We want it loud, sexy, bloody, angry, creepy, funny, rebellious, and thoroughly entertaining.” – Steven, Tim, and Alan
The story is easy to follow with Lizzie counting on her nurse-maid, sister and lesbian lover to help her commit parricide on her abusive father and stepmother. Monica Peña, as the homicidal hellion clad in Victorian dress, is a foot-stomping, hair-flinging rebel who can rock out with the best of them. Ms. Peña’s take on Lizzie as a double murderer, not to mention being totally nuts and still managing to be engaging – even endearing, is truly spectacular. Picture her turning on a dime from tones of innocence, fragility and obedience in act one to the stereotypical conniving ‘madness’ in act two after the murder of her parents, licking her lips and laughing manically at her sister, Emma. Those punky primordial wails and power stances set in an anthem of rebellion and revenge remained in my head long after the final axe dropped.
Lizzie: (axe in hand) Father will be napping now... HE'LL WISH HE HAD THAT SON!
Ms. Schynert’s performance as Emma was most enjoyable. I don’t think I’ve heard a finer voice in a long while. Her demeanor was outspoken, commanding and furious, and an accurate portrayal of the bitter resentment of her father’s marriage to his second wife. But also she seemed desperately sad. Emma isn't at all pleased when she realizes Lizzie murdered their father... because the plan was only to get their stepmother out of the way. And an axe wasn't part of the plan, either.
But Emma loved her little sister more than anything, and she is the closest thing Lizzie has to a mother. Emma does tell a few blatant lies and confusing testimony during the trial to keep her out of trouble (though they're only really blatant to the audience). She also tells us she and Lizzie have "no personal objections" to her stepmother, Abby Borden. Riiiiiiiight. Emma was never quite the subtle type, and frequently throws a little dark sarcasm in her responses. What few jokes there are land firmly into this category. One example is Lizzie tearfully asking the crowd of onlookers to come forward if they have any information on who killed her beloved father... followed by an awkward pause and Emma quickly adding, "And his wife."
Alice, Lizzie’s next door neighbor who visited frequently, was played by Ms. Ayon in a seductive, secretive, almost maternal tenderness for her. Alice is a genuinely kindhearted, likable girl and is generally the closest to Victorian femininity. She seems to be in love with Lizzie, although after the trial she goes on to marry a man. Nearly all her songs are arranged on piano and strings, with the exception of "Gotta Get Out of Here.” Alice is terrified of telling Lizzie how she feels about her, since homosexuality was taboo back then and an automatic disqualification to becoming a proper lady. In the second act, Alice is also featured in the beautiful “Will You Stay,” and was one of the highlights of the show for me.
Ms. Gentile, as the Borden Irish family maid of several years, Bridget, sang with total precision and control. I sensed many years of solid professional voice training in her vocals, and every time she opened her mouth the room vibrated. Bridget is the all-knowing narrator, a rock and roll nihilist, and very clever with a dry, dark sense of humor. Nothing much gets past her. When Ms. Gentile was on stage, your eye naturally followed her every move.
The digest of songs in this show does not seem to be an intensification of feeling as much as they are in most musicals, but rather simply crucial to our understanding of the story. It’s rare for show tunes to require this much intellectual dissection, but every turn of a phrase is a revelation. You know more, you feel more, and like Lizzie, you want to get closer to the abyss. Listen to her sing to pigeons in a barn loft—“The Soul of the White Bird”—and you’ll want to take her hand and gently place it on an axe. The nimble “Shattercane and Velvet Grass,” sung during a chance encounter between Borden and Bridget, reveals how easy it is to begin to think murder’s actually a feasible idea. The song isn’t an explanation of Lizzie’s actions, but of how a mind can slip into an idea, which leads to another slip, which leads to another, and another.
Other standout performances include the foursome’s rendition of the haunting “Forty Whacks,” and of course (goes without saying), Alli Rose Schynert nearly bringing down the house with “What the Fuck, Lizzie?” In "Mercury Rising" and "Fall of the House of Borden"— both songs addressed to the audience— Bridget knows of Lizzie's part in the murders, despite seeming completely oblivious while speaking with her in "Shattercane and Velvet Grass" and “Somebody Will Do Something." Bridget and Lizzie also have a few choice bits in "Thirteen Days in Taunton."
In "This is Not Love," early in the first act, Lizzie rejects her father's obviously insincere apologies, even if she can't do it to his face. And toward the end, in the first reprise of "Maybe Someday," Lizzie is singing quietly to herself as she sits in jail, trying to assure herself that this will all turn out fine.
Choreographed by Hazel Clarke (“A Chorus Line”/”Thrones: A Musical Parody” National Tour), the show is Stage Managed by Kelsey Somerville. The Set by Kristin Campbell (Chance’s “Emma”/”Elevada”) is an artistic assemblage of platforms and jail bars in silhouette with a back exit door that serves as a symbolic parental bedroom. Enhancing that sadistic atmosphere is Rachael Lorenzetti’s color-coded, punked-up period frocks, which may be the best aspect of the show. Adhering to the historical era the show is based on, the girls are donned in truly high quality costumes in act one, which is gradually stripped away in the second act to corsets and fishnet tights, tutus, combat boots and the like, as the women truly embrace the rock musical style.
KC Wilkerson’s (Disney Parks Live Entertainment) Lighting, Projection and Special Effects were a schizo moment for many viewers in the audience, with strobe, blinders, smoke and saturated bodies, all fusing into an overwhelming sensory spectacle, and Chance Theater’s Ryan Brodkin’s Sound Design (“Claudio Quest”/”A Chorus Line”/”Lysistrata Jones”) was largely a reverberating audible bacchanalia.
In post reflection, after many, many wrongdoings by her father, what actually pushes Lizzie to homicide is when he kills the birds in the barn. The birds were one of her few sources of genuine happiness, so she doesn't take their deaths well. It’s enough to put her over the edge. The show ends with Lizzie quite literally getting away with murder.
Our secret's safe now...
Chance Theater proudly continues with their regional premiere showing of “LIZZIE, The Musical,” the greatest American musical since Sweeney Todd, through March 3rd on the Cripe Stage, Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Ten more performances before closing! This show is Highly Recommended! Tickets may be purchased online at https://chancetheater.com/production/lizzie/