South Florida’s traditional theater season starts earlier and earlier. This week, there are 12 openings of plays and revues ranging from I Will Survive at the new PGA Arts Center to Little Shop of Horrors at Florida Children’s Theatre, from Tarzan at Slow Burn to The Little Foxes at Palm Beach Dramaworks. And there are waves of more shows over the next three or four weeks. Plus a half dozen shows already up and running. Therefore, there will likely be one and even two new reviews posted every day. If you don’t see the one you’re looking for at the top of the page, scroll down. Or click on the “Reviews” tab on the left end of the teal and white strip.
By Oline H. Cogdill
Those who have not heard the rhyme associated with the legend of Lizzie Borden and the murders of her father and stepmother should line up on the left. And if your mind needs refreshing: “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty one.”
This incident that happened on a humid Massachusetts day in 1892 has been the source of TV movies and series, documentaries, films, novels, a museum, an opera, among other things, and even food articles. (I once read a food story that connected the murders of a prominent businessman Andrew Jackson Borden and his wife Sarah Anthony Borden with the too frequent meals of mutton, a dish sure to lead anyone to vile deeds.)
And now we have Lizzie: The Musical, making its highly entertaining South Florida debut at Thinking Cap Theatre at The Vanguard. Part of that is due to the snappy lyrics. But mostly it’s because of the first-rate cast, and the sharp direction of Nicole Stodard, producing artistic director of Thinking Cap. The ever reliable Ann Marie Olson, Leah Sessa, and Sabrina Gore, along with Hannah Richter (a newcomer to South Florida audiences) could sing the heart out of a phone book, and they each bring their all to Lizzie.
Lizzie is an all-female punk rock musical with the cast bringing the high energy of a concert, as well as delving into the sometimes quieter moments of the often heartbreaking book scenes. While the musical is a fictionalized story about the murders of Lizzie’s father and stepmother in Fall River, Lizzie also is about girl empowerment, unrequited love, sex, incest, a dysfunctional family and, of course, murder.
The musical also is a love story, of sorts, between the Borden sisters, Lizzie and Emma, and between Lizzie and her friend, Alice.
By all accounts, the Borden house was not a happy home. Although he had built up several successful businesses, including making caskets, Andrew Borden was known for living frugally, often denying his family the basics such as indoor plumbing. His reputation for being mean and controlling also extended to his family, and may have included physical and sexual abuse.
Life with a tyrant should not be tolerated, as the cast convincingly sings in “Somebody Will Do Something.” And yes, somebody certainly will.
As the youngest daughter, the terrific Olson delivers a nuanced performance as Lizzie Andrew Borden—“Lizzie, not Elizabeth; Andrew after my father who wanted a boy.” Lizzie was being sexually abused by her father. Olson uses her strong, vibrant voice to illustrate her pain and the “stifled rage” at her father and living situation. Olson’s rendition of “This Is Not Love,” is chillingly poignant.
Matching Olsen is Sessa as Alice Russell, a neighbor of the family and Lizzie’s clandestine lover. Alice is Lizzie’s only escape, and they frequently meet on the sly in the barn. Sessa delivers a forceful performance as a self-assured woman who cares deeply about Lizzie—to a certain degree. Sessa often uses her beautiful voice in comedic roles—her turn as the tongue-twisting Amy in MNM’s summer production of Company was a standout. But Sessa is quite adept in dramatic roles, as she shows in Lizzie. Her “If You Knew” is a standout.
As older sister Emma Borden, Gore can barely contain her rage, both at being a near prisoner in her own home and after the murders occur. Her solid vocals convey her every emotion. Gore’s duets with Olsen, “Sweet Little Sister” and “What the F— Now, Lizzie?” are on point.
Richter deftly portrays maid Bridget Sullivan as a voyeur of the Bordens, constantly viewing this household while also scheming to make her own life better.
Alyiece Moretto Watkins’ bare bones staging of Lizzie works well. Microphone stands and a chair are in the center, with old-fashioned mirrored coat rack just to the side, near a door that Lizzie knocks on to enter her father’s bedroom. Silhouette portraits of what we presume are the doomed Bordens are framed on the wall. A raised area represents the barn where Lizzie meets Alice and where Lizzie keeps her beloved birds. (Birds never fare well in musicals; think Sweeney Todd.)
Bryna Alden’s sound and Eric Nelson’s lighting are on point. Stodard, who doubles as costumer designer, dresses her cast in black and white, which actually represent how the murders may not be a matter of black and white, as is Olson’s pristine lacey white dress at the end.
A live band is to be applauded and the five-piece band is enclosed behind a panel as if they were in a courtroom, and each wears a jabot, as if they were members of the jury with the drummer as judge. Despite the ensemble’s enthusiasm, the band was way too loud, too often overpowering the actresses’ terrific voices and lyrics.
Lizzie began as a four-song experimental piece written by Tim Maner with songs by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer for the Tiny Mythic Theatre Company’s 1990 American Living Room festival in New York. The full-score musical included additional songs and orchestrations by Alan Stevens Hewitt.
Lizzie: The Musical is all about what might have happened, and it’s steeped in reality. The murders have been fodder for theories for more than a century. It has never been proven whether Lizzie did kill her father and stepmother; she was acquitted in her trial. Her relationship with Alice, a real neighbor, was the basis of gossip; mystery author Ed McBain suggested that Lizzie committed the murders after being caught in a lesbian tryst in his 1984 novel Lizzie. The upcoming film Lizzie will start Chloë Sevigny as the axe-wielding heroine and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan. And just for the record, Lizzie’s stepmother suffered 18 or 19 blows; her father received 11 blows.
Lizzie: The Musical runs through Nov. 4 from Thinking Cap Theatre. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31, costumes are encouraged; 8 p.m. Wednesday Nov. 1. Running time 1 ½ hours with a 15 minute intermission. Performed at The Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Avenue, Ft. Lauderdale, www.vanguardarts.org. Tickets, $40. For tickets: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2922381 or thinkingcaptheatre.com or (954) 610-7263