It’s been 126 years since Andrew and Abby Borden were gruesomely murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on a relatively uneventful August morning. Their daughter Lizzie would go down in history as the prime suspect, but what in the world could’ve driven her to commit such an evil act with ax in tow? Reasons abound in the aptly titled Lizzie, an electrifying, compelling, disturbing, humorous, and unapologetically bad ass punk rock musical receiving a thrilling local premiere courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company at the Loft Theatre.
Featured at the 2010 National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival, premiering as a student production in 2012 at Baldwin Wallace University, and conceived with artistic license by composer/lyricist Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, composer Alan Stevens Hewitt and lyricist/librettist Tim Maner, Lizzie is an in-your-face, slickly irreverent look at a 19th century subject and framework reexamined within a 21st century context. Sure, we’ve seen this before (Spring Awakening and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson walked the same tight rope in 2006 and 2010, respectively), but it remains an attractive device, especially if musical theatre is to grow by appealing and connecting to a younger generation of artists and audiences open to embracing the untraditional (such as the current, daring and groundbreaking Tony Award-winning revival of Oklahoma!). And it certainly appeals here as microphone stands and hand held microphones heighten the inherent concert vibe fueling the angst, despair, resentment, and longing on display in the vein of Pat Benatar, Heart and Joan Jett among other legendary female rock goddesses. Stifled and silenced by society and disrespected and devalued in her own home, there’s no mistaking the fact that Lizzie Borden was simply driven to the point of no return.
Skillfully staged with attention to movement and nuance by Human Race Resident Artist Jamie Cordes in his Human Race directorial debut, Lizzie is performed by four outstanding actresses. In the demanding titular role, New York-based Deánna Giulietti, a vocal powerhouse, is a true knockout. Her explosive rage in This Is Not Love, her opening solo detailing Lizzie’s sexual abuse, cuts deep in its heartache and emotional release, strikingly setting the dark, frank tone of the show. Wright State University alumna Natalie Bird, in a welcomed return to the area, is hilarious, biting, tough, and cynical as Emma, Lizzie’s blunt older sister who doesn’t fail to remind Lizzie of Abby’s shortcomings as a stepmother added to her belief that she’s trying to push them out of their father’s will. Emma is underwritten (she unfortunately leaves in the middle of Act 1 yet thankfully returns in proud profane fashion near the top of Act 2), but Bird’s scintillating stage presence is remarkable throughout. In fact, I couldn’t get enough of her during Lizzie’s intriguing if hurried trial (delivering lines with comically unassuming perfection) in addition to the sight of her reverently strolling through the audience alongside Giulietti delectably interpreting the solemn hymn Watchmen for the Morning (imagine Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly singing Amazing Grace in Chicago). Leslie Goddard, who notably appeared as Georgie in the Human Race’s The Full Monty, is enjoyably playful and sarcastic as Bridget Sullivan, Lizzie and Emma’s maid with a lot to say about the House of Borden. Michaella Waickman, a Wright State musical theatre major memorably seen this season as Fredrika in A Little Night Music, beautifully portrays sensitive, vulnerable Alice Russell, Lizzie’s close friend and neighbor who pines for her (tender ballad If You Knew is an Act 1 highlight). This fierce quartet repeatedly joins forces, but special mention goes to the back-to-back brilliance of the Hair-esque Burn The Old Thing Up (regarding Lizzie’s decision to destroy her blood-stained dress) and marvelously investigatory Questions Questions (bolstered by Katie Johannigman’s wonderfully fluid choreography). Rachel Mary Green, a dynamic vocalist who starred in Wright State’s local premiere of If/Then this season, serves as understudy.
Cordes’ splendid artistic team includes scenic designer Ray Zupp (incorporating an effective nod to the Ten Commandments), costumer Liz Bourgeois (providing an attractive mixture of leather, corsets, plaid, and denim for the ladies as well as a cool final look for Giulietti in flashy gold), lighting designer John Rensel (supplying expertly evocative and vibrant work), sound designer Brian Retterer (ensuring top-notch balance and clarity), and music director/guitarist Jay Brunner (assembling a phenomenal onstage band including percussionist Kevin G. Anderson, keyboardist Matthew Ebright, cellist Emsie Hapner, and Joel Greenberg on bass).
Lizzie isn’t perfect, but it’s bold, exciting, raw, and certainly one of the best productions of the season. Don’t miss it.
Lizzie continues through June 30 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Act One: 50 minutes; Act Two: 35 minutes. Tickets are $37 for adults, $34 for seniors, and $19.50 for students. Prices vary depending on performance date. Select side-area seats available for $14 and $27 at all performances. “Sawbuck Sunday” performance June 16 offers $10 seats available for walk up sales only. Military discounts are also available. For tickets, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit humanracetheatre.org or ticketcenterstage.com. In addition, there will be a post-show discussion following the June 23 performance; Patrons are advised the show is rated PG-15 and contains strong language as well as references to abuse, murder and sexual situations.