Firebrand Theatre’s first production, a rock musical about Lizzie Borden, makes a big, bloody splash.
If one were to choose the inaugural production for a brand new feminist musical theater company, one that was to debut amid a never-before-seen unearthing of male sexual predation amidst the country’s cultural and political elites, than you probably couldn’t pick a better show than Lizzie, a rock musical retelling of the tale of Lizzie Borden, America’s favorite axe murderess.
And in director Victoria Bussert’s swaggering, ass-kicking production for Firebrand Theatre, news-weary audiences will get exactly the experience they’re hoping for. Written by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, Lizzie is both a blunt and sharp implement, much like its heroine’s weapon of choice. What it lacks in nuance, it makes up for in glorious, cathartic splatter.
In this show’s version of events, Lizzie (Liz Chidester) and her older sister Emma (Camille Robinson) suffer under the awful thumb of their father and stepmother (both unseen in this telling). And while both are enraged to find they’ve been cut out from their wealthy, miserly dad’s new will, Lizzie has even greater reasons for wanting to resort to axe-based problem-solving—their father is sexually abusing her as well. Chidester gives a superb, wide-ranging performance as Lizzie, while Robinson’s perpetually aggrieved Emma has a captivating, thrash-metal intensity.
Lizzie’s only escape is her beloved pigeons and her even more beloved neighbor, Alice (Jacquelyne Jones, wonderful). The two are in love, you see, and when Lizzie’s father catches them in the barn together, he chops the heads off of Lizzie’s pigeons to teach her a lesson. Inevitably, she teaches him and his wife a lesson in return, providing them some hands-on instruction in the art of being murdered by an axe.
The show’s fourth character is Bridget (Leah Davis), the household’s Irish maid and a kind of meta-devil on Lizzie’s shoulder. Davis is so delightful in the part, it mostly doesn’t matter that the character makes zero sense. In general, the show’s ramrod plotting (with a big assist from Maya Michelle Fein’s gorgeous lighting) mostly covers for its paper-thin script, so much so that it might have been wiser to scrap the unsung bits altogether.
The murders, which close out the first act, are presented as a violent but joyful catharsis. The bastards have gotten what they deserve, and Lizzie has finally taken her fate into her own hands. They’re presented Gallagher-style, and the first couple of rows are presented with ponchos to handle all the blood and flying bits. Pro tip: some shows exaggerate the necessity of their “splash zone.” This is not one of them. Poncho up.
Lizzie’s musical stylings are a smorgasbord of hard rock, metal, grunge, Dresden Dolls, punk and power balladry. The shows leans a bit too hard on the ballads early on, offering powerfully sung money notes by the dozen but in songs that are mostly forgettable. This is no fault of the cast, which sings these songs to smithereens, or the fantastic live band directed by Andra Velis Simon. Once Lizzie sets her sights on killing, the score goes full riot grrrl and takes a running dive into mosh pit. Since the score only contains about three chords, this is the right move. The harder, the faster, the louder, the better.
The show’s second act comes after a super-sized intermission and follows Lizzie from suspicion to arrest through her trial and (century-old spoilers) her exoneration. It also sees Act I’s historical costumes swapped out for leather and fishnets, a signal that the show has firmly entered the realm of hard-rock mythologizing. Lizzie becomes looser, bawdier, funnier and runs entirely out of you-know-what’s to give: a no-holds-barred celebration of female empowerment, of throwing two birds to the sky and telling the patriarchal powers-that-be to shove it. Hear, hear.
Firebrand Theatre at the Den Theatre. Music by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt. Lyrics by Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner. Book by Maner. Directed by Victoria Bussert. With Liz Chidester, Leah Davis, Jacquelyne Jones, Camille Robinson. Running time: 1hr 30mins; one intermission.