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Lizzie
Music by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt
Lyrics and original concept by Steven Cheslik-deMeyere and Tim Maner
Book and Additional Music by Tim Maner
Additional Lyrics and Orchestrations by Alan Stevens Hewett
Directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 29, 2017

Anna Skidis Vargas, Kimi Short, Marcy Wiegert
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Lizzie Borden murder case is still infamous even 125 years after the event. It’s been the frequent subject of books, documentaries, and dramatizations on stage and screen. This year, New Line Theatre is opening their new season with another look at this infamous story, with a highly personal approach and a bold new soundtrack. Lizzie is a musical that takes the story “out of time” in a sense, with it’s high-powered rock score and minimal staging at once appealing to modern audiences and adding a new dimension to the legend that has developed around the actual event.  With New Line’s excellent cast and production values, this show makes an intense impression.

This story isn’t new, but this approach certainly is, although the premise is somewhat similar to other dramatizations in presenting the idea of why Lizzie (Anna Skidis Vargas) would actually commit the murders of her father and stepmother, for which she was tried and acquitted. The show is presented in almost a concert format, with minimal staging and the characters outfitted in Sarah Porter’s colorful, stylized, modern punk-rock inspired costumes. The story is both told in-time and taken out of time by means of this format, with the result of making it a focused, highly personal drama. Lizzie is joined on stage by her older sister Emma (Marcy Wiegert), the family’s maid Bridget Sullivan (Kimi Short), and next-door neighbor Alice Russell (Larissa White), as they sing of their troubled lives in the “House of Borden”, with imperious father Andrew and highly disliked stepmother Abby. What emerges is a picture of a troubled family, and a lonely Lizzie who isn’t given a lot of options in life. The restrictive roles of women at the time are also presented as a factor, which makes the rebel-rock approach all the more effectively jarring. The show has its loud moments and quiet interludes, humanizing these characters that have been almost flattened by history and showing poignancy in the relationships between Lizzie and Emma, and also a particular attachment between Lizzie and Alice, as well as showing alienation from various characters–the sisters from their parents, and Bridget’s from the family for whom she works and who don’t even call her by the right name (calling her “Maggie” instead–the name of a previous maid).

What’s given here is a concert of relationships, finely crafted, shockingly portrayed, and effectively humanized, played with energy, grit, and magnetism by the first-rate New Line cast, led by Vargas as the alternately fragile and fierce Lizzie. She’s in great voice, as well, as are the rest of the performers here, and there are some strong musical moments from the opening “Forty Whacks” to ominous “The House of Borden” to the driving “Sweet Little Sister”, to the poignant, hymnlike “Watchmen for the Morning”, which features the particularly affecting harmonies of Vargas and Wiegert. Wiegert as the bold, protective Emma, White as the more gentle, longing Alice, and Short as the overworked, weary but strong-willed Bridget are all excellent, with strong voices and excellent chemistry. It’s a strong showing for all of them, and they sell this story for all its complex, emotional worth.

There are strong production values here, as well, from Porter’s aforementioned costumes to Rob Lippert’s starkly minimal set and stunning, concert-like lighting. There’s also a top-notch band conducted by music director Sarah Nelson. All these elements work together in achieving a consistent look, sound and vision for this unconventional presentation of a reasonably well-known story.

This is one of those shows that takes the audience by surprise in a way. You think you know what you’re getting–the Lizzie Borden story with rock music–and that is what New Line presents, but there is a lot more to it than that simple premise describes. The format here is a particular strength in that it takes subject matter that’s been talked about and presented in many different ways before and brings it to the audience in a way that at once sets it apart and makes it more accessible. This Lizzie is loud, but it’s also incisive. The story is old, but it’s also new. It’s a story that’s been told, but not in this way. It’s New Line at its bold, brash, thought-provoking best.

Larissa White, Anna Skidis Vargas
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Lizzie at the Marcelle Theatre until October 21, 2017.

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