By Barry Reszel
The messages are clear:
Do not fuck with Lizzie Borden!
Ditto for her dynamo namesake portraying the likely axe murderess, Liz Chidester!
And while we’re at it, same goes for Firebrand Theatre, the self-proclaimed world’s first feminist theatre company!
Welcome to Chicago, all. Because if the biggest nit (and it is) with Firebrand’s production of the musical Lizzie is that it might have been more seasonally appropriate a month earlier, well hell, a little holiday time with family will put a bunch of folks clamoring for tickets to see this gruesomely hilarious rock musical over one of the 50 local iterations of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Zuzu’s petals be damned.
Most people know the folklore of Lizzie Borden via the catchy nursery rhyme likely written by the monster who lives under the bed:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father 41.
But don’t buy into all the hyperbole about this little 1892 double homicide. First it wasn’t even Lizzie’s biological mother, but rather a likely gold digging stepmother (many families have one) who suffered a mere 18 or 19 blows. And her father? Well, this story suggests he sexually abused Lizzie, his youngest daughter, and he only sustained 11 whackings.
So in short, they had it coming (cue Chicago‘s “Cell Block Tango”). And besides, Lizzie wasn’t even convicted. Read about the whole story here and know the musical follows the known facts pretty accurately.
It’s told (and “told” means 95 percent sung) entirely through four characters—Lizzie (the magnificent Chidester); her sister Emma (the glorious actor and singer, Camille Robinson); the family maid Bridget, sometimes called Maggie (Leah Davis, she of perfect comic timing and a stellar belt); and Lizzie’s lesbian love interest/neighbor Alice (seductive with look and voice, Jacqueline Jones).
Staged mostly in concert style alternating between punk rock and tender ballads, these four Chicagoland goddesses weave the story of relationships shared and secrets harbored in a small Massachusetts town in the late 1800s. The songbook is effective, if not overly memorable. Though I don’t suspect patrons will soon forget Robinson’s rendition of that consummate children’s party tune, “What the Fuck Now, Lizzie?!” And “Someday Soon” is really all that.
But the production’s most important take-aways are these:
This ensemble of four (Chidester, Robinson, Davis and Jones) are as good as any actor/singers on any stage in any city in the world.
They are directed impeccably by Victoria Bussert, with every deliberate movement extraordinarily scripted and executed. Kudos, too, to Movement Director Jon Martinez, for his seamless choreography.
The stunning lighting by Maya Michele Fein, so important in a small stage/concert style setting, is worthy of Jeff consideration. As is Victoria Deiorio‘s impeccable sound design, no easy task for a show with this amount of musical variety. And of the music, Musical Director Andra Velis Simon and her on-stage band are simply terrific.
Now as to how this salacious tale turned into a combination folk/punk rock off-Broadway musical biopic of the (most likely) double axe murderer (music and lyrics by Steven Chelik-DeMeyer; book, lyrics and additional music by Tim Maner; music and additional lyrics by Alan Stevens) is a story of its own.
Lizzie began life in SOHO at the 1990 American Living Room festival as a four-song experimental theater/rock show that sprang from its creators’ love of musicals, Americana, women rockers and late-80s queer politics. A few years later, with six new songs backed by Staten Island band “Stealth,” Lizzie made its next appearance as an extended one-act, after which patrons of that production, Hillary Richard and Peter McCabe, acquired the rights and provided support for a years-long development process, starting with an artists’ retreat where another batch of songs and an overhaul of the book honed the focus of the narrative.
This collaborative process results in a songbook owing nothing to traditional musical theatre composers and everything to artists like “Heart,” “Nirvana,” “Led Zeppelin,” “The Beatles,” “Grace Slick,” “Radiohead,” and “The Runaways.” A 2009 a production at the Living Theatre on New York’s Lower East Side produced sellout crowds, great reviews and three Drama Desk nominations. And in 2013, the current version of the show Lizzie debuted at Theater Under the Stars in Houston.
But now it’s in Chicago, in the most capable hands of the brand new Firebrand Theatre, “a musical theatre company committed to employing and empowering women by expanding their opportunities on and off the stage.”
Says Artistic Director Harmony France, “We knew pretty early on that we wanted Lizzie to open our season. It fits our mission perfectly. It’s one of the few musicals that features all women. The characters are flawed and complicated in a way that women don’t normally get to portray in musical theatre. There is an unapologetic blistering rock score played by our all femme band. It’s sexy and scary and vulnerable and there’s a splash zone.
“At Firebrand, we are committed to illuminating women’s stories whether they’re good, bad or ugly – and Lizzie is definitely all of the above.”
Indeed she is. And a word to the wise: Don’t fuck with her!
Firebrand Theatre Company presents “Lizzie” through January 14 at The Den Theatre’s Bookspan Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.