Saturday December 16th 2017

“Lizzie” reviewed by Jeffrey Leibham

Firebrand Theatre, with its inaugural production of “Lizzie,” has put an indelible stamp on the local musical theater scene. The work, which has become an almost global underground  phenomenon, is finally receiving its Chicago premiere in a blistering and highly entertaining production. Firebrand Theatre, according to its Artistic Director Harmony France, is the first musical theater company in the U.S. “committed to employing and empowering women by expanding opportunities on and off the stage.” This piece perfectly fits their mission and features a quartet of extremely talented performers backed by a kick-ass group of femme musicians.

Originally conceived in the mid-1990’s as a cycle of just four songs, “Lizzie” has evolved into a solidly constructed musical, conceptually presented as a rock concert with four female characters. The music was composed by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt with lyrics by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner. At some point during the creative process, additional music by Tim Maner and additional lyrics by Alan Stevens Hewitt were added, probably around 2012, when this particular version was presented in New York in a warehouse Off-Broadway. The book, by Tim Maner, may not necessarily be 100% historically accurate but it does offer an interesting scenario which could have led to a motive for Lizzie Borden to kill her father and stepmother in 1892 as well as present a possible female companion with whom Lizzie may have shared a sexual relationship. With a crime of the century that occurred 125 years ago, details could be imprecise or vague, but the book of this musical is anything but that. Mr. Maner has crafted his own version of what may have happened in the Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts and it is completely convincing. By presenting Lizzie as an abused young woman experiencing her first pangs of sexual awakening, the audience can’t help but sympathize with her instead of viewing her as some demonic monster who savagely committed parricide. Providing numerous clues, facts and first-hand testimonials throughout, the very well-researched script presents a plausible framework for the story to unfold.

Director Victoria Bussert, who has directed several other productions of “Lizzie,” has assembled a top-notch cast and high-octane musicians. All are totally invested in the material and deliver a riotous good time. Ms. Bussert, ably assisted by the mega-talented Jon Martinez as Movement Director, have polished and rehearsed this ensemble into a superlatively tight, incredibly focused cohesive unit. Liz Chidester as Lizzie is both angelic and ferocious, gifted with a beautiful singing voice. Her best moments are during the quieter, more reflective songs in the first act, especially when Lizzie is up in the loft of the barn surrounded by the birds that she loves and has built a coop for. But she also can tap into the angst and rage when necessary and almost seems to relish wielding that mighty axe. Leah Davis plays Bridget, the Irish maid who has worked in the Borden household for many years but is still mistakenly addressed as “Maggie” by Lizzie. Ms. Davis is clearly having fun with this role, and it’s infectious. Her droll delivery and expressive eyes are marvelous to watch and she clearly adds the tongue in cheek as she gets to narrate (and navigate) the grisly crime scene. Jacquelyne Jones is captivating as Alice Russell, Lizzie’s neighbor and love interest. Ms. Jones has an expressive and lovely voice that is utilized particularly well during the love songs that she shares with Ms. Chidester, their voices melding into superbly appealing harmonies. While Camille Robinson as Emma, Lizzie’s older and more practical sister, may have the least amount of stage time (Emma was living outside of Fall River at the time of the crimes), Ms. Robinson takes complete control of her moments. Both acts feature a musical number for her character, and Ms. Robinson brings full braggadocio in each.

Music Director Andra Velis Simon conducts from the keyboard. Stella Vie (bass), Nora Barton (cello/auxiliary percussion) and Courtney McNally (drums) complete the band, all who maintain a full-throttle sonic energy blast from a small elevated orchestra pit behind the stage, thankfully visible to the audience. Scenic Designer Eleanor Kahn has one central design element, a large black, rustic wooden chair that sits at center stage. This chair mimics not only a regal throne but also a lethal electric chair. Two small benches and a table also function in multiple settings later on in a minimal but compact playing area. Lighting Designer Maya Michele Fein insures that you will feel like you are at an actual rock concert. Strobe lights, strobe lighting effects, blinder lighting effects and precisely placed overhead beams illuminate the four performers at the top of and the conclusion of the show. Costume Designer Charlotte Yetmann has all the characters in confining Victorian-era long dresses, crisply pressed blouses and tight-fitting corsets in Act One, and Lizzie strips down to cream colored undergarments before reaching for the murder weapon. Also, all of the hair styles are puritanical in their severity, short and well-groomed. Act Two gives way to nearly modern style of dress. All are decked out in black leather bustiers, black lace frill skirts and even black latex bondage-like shoulder sheaths. The only use of color is in Lizzie’s red mini camisole worn under her top (and barely noticeable) and Alice’s green corset, perhaps suggesting the jealousy she surely must have felt in keeping her love of Lizzie a secret. Hair styles have also relaxed by the second act, with the actresses sporting long, flowing well-coiffed locks. There is a very clever scene in Act One where Lizzie and Bridget imagine serving a poisoned tea to Mrs. Borden which is a wonderful bit of stagecraft, as is the burning of Lizzie’s dress in Act Two. The most inventive part, however, is in the depiction of the murders themselves. Not to worry, the stage manager is kind enough to distribute courtesy plastic ponchos to those audience members who happen to be seated in the first row. Just a bit of protection from the splatter that may occur during the bloody good time that Ms. Chidester is enjoying in her gore-filled Act One finale.

Over the course of the next six weeks, your theater-going options will have, for the most part, a holiday-centric aspect to them. While there is nothing wrong with a little sugar plum frivolity, why not dig into something a bit more juicy? Give “Lizzie” a try. This female-centric high-octane thrill ride should be on everyone’s “Must See” list. “Lizzie” will continue at The Den as follows:

Fri, Nov 17: 8:00pm
Sat, Nov 18: 8:00pm
Sun, Nov 19: 3:00pm
Thu, Nov 23: 8:00pm
Fri, Nov 24: 8:00pm
Sat, Nov 25: 8:00pm
Sun, Nov 26: 3:00pm
Thu, Nov 30: 8:00pm
Fri, Dec 1: 8:00pm
Sat, Dec 2: 8:00pm
Sun, Dec 3: 3:00pm
Thu, Dec 7: 8:00pm
Fri, Dec 8: 8:00pm
Sat, Dec 9: 8:00pm
Sun, Dec 10: 3:00pm
Thu, Dec 14: 8:00pm
Fri, Dec 15: 8:00pm
Sat, Dec 16: 8:00pm
Sun, Dec 17: 3:00pm

 


Price: $45

Show Type: Musical

Box Office: 773-697-3830

ww.firebrandtheatre.org

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Lizzie”.

The Den is located at 1333 N. Milwaukee Avenue

this production is in the Bookspan Theatre space.

 

 

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