Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner & Alan Stevens Hewitt
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
Gave her father forty-one.
|Elizabeth Curtis as Lizzie, Jessica Coker as Emma, Taylor Jones as Alice and Melissa Reinertson as Bridget.|
With this children’s ditty probably running through our minds as we enter San Francisco’s Victoria Theatre to see a musical entitled Lizzie, the dark, cavernous stage draped ominously in massive, white cloths becomes the final touch to ready us for an evening of the macabre. What may not be expected is that this tale of unspeakable secrets, multiple motives for murder, and a barbaric bloodbath will be told in a rock-style concert by four fabulous female voices. Ray of Light Theatre continues a tradition of presenting in first-class fashion quirky, off-the-main-path musicals (Carrie the Musical, Heathers, Yeast Nation, Triassic Park) as the Company stages Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer’s, Tim Maner’s, and Alan Steven Hewitt’s Lizzie.
Four women in appropriate, floor-length dresses for 1892 Massachusetts (authentically designed by Melissa Wortman) step forward to introduce themselves in the stark, almost spooky spotlights of Light Designer Joe E’Emilio. Lizzie Andrew Bordon (“Not Elizabeth and Andrew after my Father,” she defiantly informs us), Sister Emma, Housekeeper Bridget, and Neighbor Alice each stare hauntingly straight ahead as they move upstage to establish their personas. With continuous songs and scant dialogue, the women tell their tale beginning with a description of “The House of Borden”: “In the house of Borden, there is a lock on every door … In every room, a prisoner.” Subsequent songs become more and more disturbing and foreboding. Elizabeth Curtis’s Lizzie belts without ever over-blasting in “This Is Not Love,” “What kind of life am I living if I have no voice?… Is it so wrong to want more ‘cause this is not love.” Harshly bending at the waist, almost hitting head on the ground, she goes into a gut-wrenching “Ahh-hhh” as she recalls the regular night visits to her room by her father. (Certainly every hair on every neck in the audience in now standing at attention.) With her neighbor and increasingly intimate friend Alice (Taylor Iman Jones), she goes into a madwoman sequence declaring in a wild-circling duet, “I gotta get out of here; something does not feel quite right.” Alice herself is carrying a secret love she fears to reveal to Lizzie and laments in tender tones,
“A secret of my own I am afraid to share, so I come home alone. …
If you only knew how I watch everything you do …
If you know how every night I dream of you.”
Jessica Corker’s Emma is bitterly angry their stepmother has caused their father to cut her and Lizzie out of his will. In “Sweet Little Sister,” she shares with her much younger sister in a deep voice powerfully clear in its richness and resonance, [This is a house] “where both realize the other has been hurt by their father,” leading her not to only to cry out in song but also to leave with packed bag, “I’ve got to get away.” Always watching in the background, Irish redhead Bridget joins Lizzie and Alice in a metallic rock jam where their bodies jerk synchronistically and spastically in “Mercury’s Rising,” leading to their loud, raucous warning,
“Somebody will do something,
Somebody will take something,
Somebody will steal something,
Somebody will die.”
Individually and collectively as an ensemble, these four women are superb in all regards. Lyrics, even when blared in the loudest rock sections through hand-held mikes pulled out of dress folds, are understandable and deliver big impacts. All voices handle majestically a full range of demands from full-sounding ballads to a close-harmony hymn to the zaniest and hardest of rock. Whether called on for a sweet love scene (Lizzie and Alice on a romantic, seductive picnic in “Will You Stay”) or a totally frenetic, physically demanding scream-fest (Emma and Lizzie in “What the F**k, Lizzie?!”), each of the four brings impressive finesse and skill to her acting. The often split-second dips, twists, and pace shifts of Nicole Helfer’s effective choreography are executed with such vigor and precision to raise the blood pressure of anyone watching. It is difficult to imagine how a better cast could have been assembled for this Ray of Light winner.
Supporting this cast is a band of six, under the musical direction of David Moschler, that knows how to excite and energize, shift moods and effect transitions, and enhance a voice without ever taking over. The musical sound from opening notes to climatic close is always right for the moment.
And why is a musical about parental slaughter so appealing? Because the real story is not about patricide and matricide, but rather it is about strong women rising above traditional patterns of society and its overly constrictive expectations of what is proper for them. Pushing boundaries beyond where women were/are supposed to go in terms of love, of righting wrongs done to them by men, and even of consciously lying to protect themselves and each other, these four may not be angels; but they are possibly heroic. Their final and triumphant “Into Your Wildest Dreams” demonstrates in flowing, stunning costume change that for these women, their hell is now past, no matter what others might think or how they might judge.
Musically, visually, and story-wise, Lizzie is the next generation mash-up of Spring Awakening and Hedwig and the Angry Inch that will surely be packing in the audiences, young and old, into Ray of Light’s production at Victoria Theatre.
Rating: 5 E
Ray of Light’s Lizzie continues at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco, through October 17, 2015. Tickets are available online at http://www.victoriatheatre.org/index.php/box-office.
Photo by Eric Scanlon