Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Spotlight Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Spookley the Square Pumpkin: The Musical

Katerina Anderson, Jazlynn Damasco, Bella Cucchetti, and Isabella Menzel
Photo by Robert Waller
The well-known nursery rhyme about Lizzie Borden and her axe and how she gave her mother forty whacks with it before using it on her father has cemented the story of Lizzie and her notorious murders in the minds of just about everyone. Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt have taken that rhyme and other lesser-known facts about the 1892 murders and Lizzie's case and crafted it into a rock opera called Lizzie. Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of this small-cast show, the first in their new smaller studio space, has four fantastic actresses, a superb band, and spirited direction and choreography. It's a loud, in-your-face musical that gets inside the mind of Lizzie and the other people in her life as it lays out potential motives for the murders set against a driving, rock beat.

The plot is fairly straightforward and told in a linear fashion. We quickly learn how Lizzie and her sister Emma didn't approve of their father's new wife and how they believed they'd be cut out of their father's will if he died before their step-mother. Lizzie also has a very close relationship with her neighbor Alice, while their nosey housemaid Bridget seems to always be snooping around. Once the murders happen, we witness the aftermath and how it impacts these four women.

While the show uses modern rock music to tell its story, the setting, most of the lyrics, and the minimal dialogue are firmly planted in 1892. Similar to how Spring Awakening so perfectly used a modern pop/rock score to tell the coming-of-age story of teenagers in 1890s Germany, the combination of period dialogue and lyrics with a rock score works just as well here. The score, with music by Cheslik-deMeyer and Hewitt and lyrics from Cheslik-deMeyer and Maner, is a nice blend of introspective ballads, emotional duets, and driving rock tunes. The lyrics and Maner's book do a nice job intertwining the facts of the case along with the rumors and speculation of Lizzie's predicament into a fascinating and thought-provoking study that will likely find most audience members enthralled.

Director Chanel Bragg and co-director Marielle Tepe have done a wonderful job. Not only have they found four exceptional actresses and keep the show moving along at a fast clip, but they also ensure the emotional and charming moments are just as focused and important as the loud and rambunctious rock numbers. Their staging and set design is also clear and precise with only the use of a few wooden crates, some chairs, and a small table that are moved around to quickly create the different settings. While there aren't a lot of choreographed songs in the show, Katie Czajkowski uses her steps wisely to deliver important stage images; her choreography for "Questions, Questions" is stunning and gorgeously designed–some of the best I've seen in the last few seasons.

The cast is exceptional. All four talented young actresses create believable, three-dimensional characters and they draw you in to the story with performances that are intense and also infused with conviction. Under Elise Kurbat's sharp musical direction, they deliver vocals that soar and shine as they wail and roar along with the heavy rock music.

Bella Cucchetti is intense and full of rage and anger as Lizzie. You truly believe from her distressed and possessed portrayal that Lizzie did kill her father and step-mother, but you also sympathize with her. It's an exceptional performance overflowing with layers and shades of emotion. Jazlynn Damasco is strong, independent and fierce, as Emma Borden, with a performance chock-full of conviction. As Lizzie's next-door neighbor and alleged lover Alice, Katerina Anderson makes you truly believe, from her facial expressions that alternate between quick glances that are glowing and dripping with joy to hurtful and pained looks once the murders happen, that she is in love with Lizzie. Her solo "If You Knew" is perfectly delivered. As the Bordens' housemaid Bridget, Isabella Menzel uses her perfect comic timing and excellent facial expressions of knowing glances and double takes to get big laughs, making this character an audience favorite.

Heather Riddle's costumes and Angel DeMichael's hair and make-up designs use both period and modern touches that beautifully combine the historical past with the glam-rock present. Josh Hontz's lighting provides some evocative stage images and his sound design is fine, although at the performance I attended the exceptional all-female band overpowered the cast at times. Hopefully, since this is a new space, that balance will be fixed for upcoming performances.

While Lizzie has a few quiet and introspective songs and moments, it's a fairly heavy and loud rock musical that fans of traditional musical theatre may not take to. However, for those who liked Spring Awakening or Rent, I think you'll find much to like in Spotlight's energetic and exceptional production of Lizzie.

On subsequent upcoming Thursday night performances, the two understudies for this production will alternate in the roles they play.

Lizzie runs through October 23, 2022, at Spotlight Youth Theatre, 10620 N 43rd Avenue, Glendale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-843-8318

Director: Chanel Bragg
Assistant Director and Stage Manager: Marielle Tepe
Musical Direction: Elise Kurbat
Choreography: Katie Czajkowski
Set Design: Chanel Bragg and Marielle Tepe
Costume Design: Heather Riddle
Lighting & Sound Design: Josh Hontz
Hair & Makeup Design: Angel DeMichael

Lizzie Borden: Bella Cucchetti
Alice Russell: Katerina Anderson
Bridget Sullivan: Isabella Menzel
Emma Borden: Jazlynn Damasco
Lizzie/Alice: Lainey Kenly
Bridget/Emma: Olivia Martinez