Lizzie Borden: The Musical
Also see Suzanne's review of Elegies: A Song Cycle
Lizzie Borden: The Musical by Christopher McGovern (book, music and lyrics) and Amy Powers (lyrics) is having its Massachusetts premiere through May 30th at the Stoneham Theatre. The journey began in 1998 at New Jersey's American Stage Company with Alison Fraser in the lead. [ Album review.] The second major incarnation was a sold out run at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in 2001 with Christiane Noll as Lizzie Borden.
Though the leading actress has changed each time (Jayne Paterson from Broadway's Les Miserables and Jane Eyre does the honors here) director/choreographer Bill Castellino has stayed with the project since its inception. The list of musical numbers in the program compared to the one on the Goodspeed website indicates little has changed, in that respect, for this production.
Despite what you may recall from the poem you learned as a child (Lizzie Borden took an ax, She gave her mother 40 whacks, When she seen what she had done, She gave her father 41), Lizzie Borden was actually acquitted of the murder of her parents. The seriously botched investigation - no murder weapon, no blood linked to the suspect, her inquest testimony ruled inadmissible - became the first "tabloid murder case" 100 years before the world was riveted by the O.J. Simpson trial.
And despite her attempt to buy up the entire publisher's run of the first book written about the case, Lizzie Borden's story has been retold many times in many different forms. In addition to countless academic studies and popular books there is a Lizzie Borden society, a website, a newsletter, a museum and B&B (in the actual house), a ballet by Agnes de Mille (Fall River Legend), several plays, an opera and, of course, a made-for-TV movie.
What distinguishes this adaptation are the three characters (and their performers, the best of an uneven cast) at the center of its telling: the adult Lizzie (Paterson,) her childhood self (Andrea Ross) and the Borden's feisty Irish maid (Sara Inbar.) The creative team has done their research and incorporates much of the modern spin that feeds today's fascination with such "unsolved mysteries."
There's a wealth of theories out there regarding co-conspirators and/or other suspects (the maid, Lizzie's sister, a retarded half-brother who had a fascination with hatchets) and a possible motive for the accused (her stepmother discovering a lesbian affair with the maid, a history of incest with her father or uncle, a condition causing seizures and blackouts brought on by extreme PMS) not to mention speculation about how she got away with it (burning the blood-splattered dress, committing the crime in the nude.) And so forth, and so on ...
The creative team all too easily embraces some of the above, but it's also to their credit that they invent a handyman accomplice (Christopher Chew) to round out Lizzie's character and explore the most interesting of the constraints on the outcome, Victorian society itself. With a company of only fourteen (some of whom double roles a little too conspicuously), they still manage to convey how the perception of women and their limited roles placed them at odds with the men who controlled the purse strings, the press, the pulpit and, ultimately, the judicial system and the outcome of this case.
And it's also to their credit that, despite selling the show as "another Phantom of the Opera or Jekyll & Hyde," the material is not through-sung and the musical numbers - with one exception used to proper effect - not overwrought. I especially warmed to McGovern's ballads "House on the Hill," "Every Time I Look at You" and "Fly Away." And I liked what he and Powers were going for in the maid's rant "The Maggie Work" and the newspaper section of "The Trial of Lizzie Borden Unwinds," even though I couldn't always catch the lyrics. The uncredited vocal arrangements and the orchestrations for piano, reeds, cello, percussion and keyboard are also very effective.
My major complaint is that the considerable demands of the physical production (sets by Craig Siebels, lights by Paul Miller and costumes by Rachel Padula Shufelt) are only half met here. The decorative elements of the unit set evoke the period, but the numerous scene changes become tiresome and aren't always executed with precision and silence. The lighting, while occasionally providing a lovely effect, too often casts harsh shadows and creates uneven patches. The men's period outfits are fine and some of the gowns exquisitely rendered in a tasteful palette of greens, lavenders and purples; but the rest of the women's dresses look like loaners from a low-budget production of The Music Man.
Perhaps one of the downfalls of "thinking big" for Lizzie Borden: The Musical is that the realization of a production requiring a cast of fourteen and rigorous design demands isn't so easily produced. The story, however, enlightens and fascinates.
Lizzie Borden: The Musical now through May 30th at the Stoneham Theatre. The performance schedule is Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 4pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $32 for adults, $27 for seniors (62+) and $16 for students (under 18 or with a valid college id.) For tickets or information call (781) 279-2200 or visit the website at www.stonehamtheatre.org. The theatre is on Rte 28 (the main street) in the center of Stoneham, just north of Boston, easily accessible from 1-93 or 1-95 with plenty of convenient free parking.