We’ve all heard the old twisted nursery rhyme somewhere: “Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks.” The true story of Lizzie Borden is the stuff of American legend. For those unfamiliar with the grisly tale; on a sweltering summer morning in 1892, a prominent Massachusetts businessman and his wife were brutally axed to death in their home. Their daughter Lizzie was the prime suspect. Her trial became a media sensation, her story became a legend – and more recently, it was turned into a thumping rock musical.
Lizzie gets its Aussie debut at Sydney’s intimate home of musicals, the Hayes Theatre, with Maeve Marsden directing an all-women and non-binary cast and creative team. Four performers front a fierce rock band, and explode onto the stage in a fit of bombastic energy and killer vocal performances, with wicked humour that packs a whack, amidst all the darkness.
This production takes a hatchet to Borden’s Victorian era tale and puts it back together again with fresh eyes. Americana is substituted for Australiana, and a story of lesbian rage fires up. The result is a whole lot of bloody fun and big feelings.
The script itself is not particularly interested in the whole truth of Lizzie Borden’s life anyway, and Marsden’s interpretation removes it further from any concerns for time, place or historical accuracy. The action is transported to Australia, with the cast leaning into Aussie accents, and the glam rock score gets a grungier, more pub rock style local flavour, with hints of Killing Heidi and of Silverchair.
Each star brings a unique tone to the piece. Newcastle local Marissa Sarcoa stars as Lizzie, bringing a great depth and range of feeling with her voice. As a powerful performer, it is not surprising to read that she has reprised the role of Maureen in Rent three times now, and she is every bit worthy of taking the lead. As Lizzie’s sister Emma, Ali Calder proves to pack a punch as well. As Lizzie’s neighbour and love interest Alice, Stefanie Caccamo brings a softer, romantic, more classically musical theatre trained tempo. Cabaret artist and actor Sarah Ward (also known by her boisterous alter ego, Yana Alana) charges through the action as the Borden’s maid Bridget, bringing the kind of humour and spunk that only a cabaret queen can serve.
Much like in the pop-ier Six the Musical, we see a line-up of women from another era, crooning about how their lives have been affected by the actions of a man who is never seen on stage. There is even the promise of a sapphic love story to rival the one we were gifted by Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor. What we actually get is something less idealistic, but satisfying in its own way – reminding us that even queer people can be assholes.
The staging is well utilised, designer Melanie Liertz’s (HMS Pinafore) set employs screen doors and elevated platforms to give range to the small, exposed stage – which, impressively, never feels too cramped or stifled. That’s also thanks to the smooth movement direction of Ghenoa Gela. The band is visible at the back of the stage, their passionate strumming and percussion an echo of the characters’ emotions. While one performer is having their moment in the spotlight, you can see what the other characters are doing and feeling off to the side, as the band laughs and reacts.
Lizzie has all the makings of a great suspense thriller, except that there isn’t a lot of space held for that suspense to brew. This can hardly be blamed on the creative team, who do a mighty job of reinterpreting the book by Tim Maner and music and lyrics by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt. The script barely pauses for breath between songs, but every song does serve to further the action. The story told here is not particularly complex, but the feeling of it is really its main drawcard.
Marsden places a darker lens over the themes of murder, domestic violence, and revenge. Essentially, she hijacks the script as a vehicle to explore the stories of women, and particularly, queer women. The result is a satisfying blend of dark and light, of trauma and laughter, a balance that has been refined by queer storytellers for decades.
Directing this musical and assembling the team to make it happen is a logical and perfect fit for Marsden’s creative canon. She has plied her trade in developing feminist cabaret and uplifting queer storytelling. She is the creator and co-creator of acts like Lady Sings It Better, an all-women singing group that reframes songs written and performed by men, and Mother’s Ruin, a dark comedy cabaret about the history of gin. She is also the creator and host of popular LGBTQIA+ storytelling podcast show Queerstories, and its musical sibling, Homage. Her fans and followers can be proud of this one.
Lizzie plays until February 5 at Hayes Theatre, Potts Point. Find out more and book your tickets here.