7/20/2022 LIZZIE Actor’s Express / Oglethorpe University Theatre
Lizzie Borden Took an Axe
Gave Her Mother Forty Whacks
We’ve heard the nursery rhyme.
We think we know the details.
We debate her guilt or innocence.
What we don’t consider is, did the Borden parents have it coming?
Here are the facts not in dispute:
On August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their Fall River MA house. Andrew had two daughters by a previous marriage, Lizzie (“NOT Elizabeth”) and Emma, both of whom referred to their stepmother as “Mrs. Borden.”
Lizzie was put on trial for the murders but was acquitted, due to lack of evidence (no bloody dress or murder weapon were found), Evidence leading to the acquittal was given by the family maid, Bridget Sullivan, whom the sisters called “Maggie” (“The name of their previous girl”). Also giving evidence was a neighbor, Alice Russell.
After the trial, Lizzie led a solitary life, but devoted her “works” to charity and died in 1927 at the age of 76. Emma died 9 days later, and the sisters, neither of whom ever married, are buried side by side in the family plot.
No one was ever convicted of the murders.
So, Lizzie the Musical, book by Tim Maner, music and lyrics by Steven Cheslik-Demeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, first produced in 2009.
Four actresses. One hard-driving rock-and-roll band. Four characters who all have a motive for murder, Four Characters who all have a motive for protecting the killer and covering up her guilt. Four Rock Divas basking in the limelight.
And an energetic head-banging (literally face-splitting) rock concert celebrating the downfall of the American New England patriarchy.
I am not the biggest fan of this throbbing, driving style of hard-edged rock, but I loved this show, just as I do its aesthetic descendent Six. I was drawn in by the forceful stage presence of the cast (Jasmine Renee Ellis as Lizzie, Jessica de Maria as Emma, Christina Leidel as Bridget (“Maggie”), Megan Zhang as Alice Russell, as well as the roof-raising on-stage band, led by MD Ashley Prince (on keys) with Bo Walton on guitar (who becomes a character and can shred like a killer), Fuji Fujimoto on Bass, Deisha Oliver on Cello and Jen Hodges on Drums. I could listen to this score endlessly, and am, in fact, listening to it as I put these words into the universe.
Mr. Maner’s libretto posits an oppressive household: a cruel (and miserly) father who may also be a sexual predator, a greedy step-mother who does everything in her power to disinherit the sisters, a Lizzie who wants nothing more than to be left alone in the barn loft with her pigeons, an Emma who will do whatever it takes to protect her sister and honor the memory of their lost mother, a Bridget who suffers her own oppression at the hands of the elder Bordens, an Alice who is love with Lizzie and “only meets with her in the upstairs chambers.”
When Mr. Borden slaughters Lizzie’s pigeons, when Mrs. Borden gets her husband to change his will to benefit her and leave the sisters in eventual penury, “Somebody Will Do Something” as we see in the tense and vivid Act I Finale. In Act II, we see the fate of the bloody dress, we see the alibis and excuses, we see the acquittal, we see the elevation of Lizzie Borden from child-taunt victim to rock-and-roll Goddess. We see all four women equally elevated. And it’s as satisfying, as compelling, as exhilarating as any musical conclusion I’ve seen.
Credit director Jennifer Alice Acker, MD Ashley Prince, choreographer Bubba Carr, Scenic Designer Charlie Calvert, Sound Designer Mikaela Fraser, and Lighting Designer Miranda DeBusk for creating a concert space that makes the plot points easily understood, that gives each actor the opportunity to display their considerable belt skills and rock chops, that builds in suspense to a near-perfect finale. Special props to costume designer Alan Yeong for creating leathery ensembles that (somehow) evoke both 19th Century New England and 22nd Century Hard Rock. I especially loved Lizzie’s final (all white) outfit that looks like nothing that ever existed in the real world yet makes her the center of attention as she ascends to the heights of Popular Acclaim.
So, did Lizzie do it? Lizzie: The Musical doesn’t care. All it cares about is that Mr. and Mrs. Borden got their just desserts, as did the four woman in the eye of the hurricane.
At one point, the killer comes on stage, holding a dripping axe, covered head-to-foot in blood spatter, and announces the deaths. “Someone Killed Them!”
They had it coming!