Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Lizzie the MusicalChance Theater
Review by Bill Eadie


Nicole Gentile, Alli Rose Schynert,
Monika Peña, and Jisel Soleil Ayon

Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
There are multiple ways of making sense of the brutal axe murders that Lizzie Borden was accused of committing. For example, one could focus on how it became the media sensation of its day, in an era of yellow journalism.

Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner instead decided to explore the motives that Lizzie Borden might have had for committing the murders, for which she was charged but never convicted. They settled on the general theme of revenge and present several reasons for that motive in Lizzie the Musical. The work has been around for a while in various stages of development, but it's just getting its area premiere at Anaheim's Chance Theater.

The Chance production features strong singing and an emphasis on female empowerment. The musical itself will certainly be a tough listen for some.

Written as a rock opera with punk leanings, the piece focuses on the interplay among four women, three of whom are part of the Borden household in 1892 Fall River, Massachusetts: Lizzie Borden (Monika Peña), her sister Emma Borden (Ali Rose Schynert), and the housekeeper, Bridget Sullivan (Nicole Gentile), who, she mentions more than once, is often called "Maggie," the name of the former housekeeper. The fourth woman is Alice Russell (Jisel Soleil Ayon), a neighbor who often "kept company" with Lizzie and was received in the upstairs part of the house.

All of the women have potential revenge motives. Lizzie was incensed when her father remarried after her mother's death, and calls the new wife "Mrs. Borden." Emma has discovered that her father has rewritten his will, potentially cutting the two daughters out of their inheritance. Bridget, an Irish immigrant, is unhappy in her demeaning housekeeper role and shows signs of budding feminism. Alice has been involved in an incipient lesbian relationship with Lizzie and is worried that the secret will come out in a community where same-sex attraction is both taboo and scandalous.

Director Jocelyn A. Brown has staged the Chance production to resemble more of a concert. The five-piece band, led by music director Robyn Manion, is on stage throughout, and the industrial scenic design (by Kristin Campbell) provides levels, nooks, and crannies to suggest a large house and yard. KC Wilkerson's lighting design features concert effects, such as rear-positioned instruments that shine directly at the audience. Ryan Brodkin's sound design provides clear projection of the singing and makes sure that the band does not overpower. The mic stands metaphorically portray axes, even though each woman is equipped with a visible headset mic. Rachael Lorenzetti's costumes are the one nod the production makes to its period. Hazel Clarke choreographs a minimal number of dances.

The performers move about and scene changes are achieved through repositioning, props coming on and off, and changes of costume. But the voices are still primary the means of storytelling.

Each performer has a voice that's well suited to this material. Ms. Peña's is featured most prominently, and she alternates between sweetness and rage (complete with punk hair-tossing moves). Ms. Gentile is the schemer, and the staging leaves open the possibility that she committed the murders. Ms. Ayon plays the scared lover who comforts Lizzie and brings out the sweetness in her. Ms. Schynert, as sister Emma, has the smallest part and comes across as more appalled by her situation than anything.

Lovers of the rock opera genre will certainly find Lizzie the Musical to be to their liking. Those who enjoy adventurous theatre more than rock music may find it something to admire more than like.

Lizzie the Musical, through March 3, 2019, at Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Avenue, in Anaheim CA. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. Free parking is readily available. Tickets may be purchased by calling 888-455-4212 or by visiting www.ChanceTheater.com.




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