By ROY BERKO
Vickie Bussert, the director of Lizzie: The Musical, an exploration of the Lizzie Borden story, now on stage as a joint production between Baldwin Wallace’s nationally respected Musical Theater Program and Beck Center of the Arts, is no stranger to the show.
Bussert staged the show at the 14th Street Theatre, in Playhouse Square in 2012. Three of the cast members, Ciara Renee, Keri Rene Fuller and Shannon O’Boyle, went on to enjoy Broadway careers.
She then directed the Danish, London and Chicago premieres of LIZZIE, before making a return to PHSquare for four performances in 2017. Veronica Otim, of that cast, has gone on to a Broadway career.
Bussert says, “Lizzie is such an exciting musical. I can’t wait to tackle it again for the Beck Center!”
And, tackle it she does!
The joint production of Baldwin Wallace and Beck is a high tension, rock-centric musical that has the audience bopping in their seats. Matthew Webb’s high-octane band wails, and the cast powerfully develops that story with superb acting and singing.
Bussert went on to say, “This piece has the power of transformation for the actresses — I’ve seen it over and over again. There’s just nothing written like this for women in the musical theatre canon.”
She continued, “Although the cast is only four, we not only double cast the show but added five amazing understudies — we weren’t going to let COVID win!”
What’s the show about? Remember the jump rope rhyme, “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.”
Yes, the Lizzie in the title is the infamous Lizzie Borden.
The story is set the late summer of 1892. We discover that Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. During the trial, testimonies were muddled, evidence was incomplete, and, much to the chagrin of many of the townsfolk, Lizzie was acquitted.
“The musical delves into the mysterious mind of Lizzie Borden and speculates on the motivations she may have had: loss of inheritance, history of sexual abuse, overwhelming oppression, and madness.”
As for Lizzie, her birth name was Lizzie Andrew Borden. Her father, as she reminds us throughout the show, wanted a son, thus her middle name.
She was, at least by her recounting, sexually molested by her wealthy father. In addition, she and her sister, Emma, were harshly treated by her step-mother.
The murders and trial received widespread publicity throughout the United States and remain a topic in American popular culture to the present day. They have been depicted in numerous films, theatrical productions, literary works, and folk rhymes. She, and the murder house, have become a cottage industry in Fall River.
The BW/Beck production is outstanding. From the opening notes of “Forty Whacks” the cast demands attention.
(Note: The show is double cast. All comments in this review are based on my seeing The Axe cast.”
The exposition is laid out clearly in “The House of Borden,” in which the cast of four, tells of the evil and angst within the four walls. The tale is broadened by Lizzie’s narration of the molestation by her father in the haunting “This Not Love” and the wrenching, “Gotta Get Out of Here,” both well-interpreted and sung by petite BW sophomore, Jessi Kirtley. She commands the stage throughout the show.
We gain an understanding of the family dynamics when Lizzie joins in “Sweet Little Sister,” with dynamic BSW senior Autumn Key (Emma). Displaying a strong singing voice, Key sometimes over did her volume, substituting loudness for line and lyric interpretation. The duos “What the F#%k Now Lizzie” laid out what was going to happen now that their parents were dead.
Graduating Baldwin Wallace senior, Colette Caspari, has a wonderful approach to humor and created a delightful Bridget, the family housekeeper, who knows all and tells all. It is easy to see this talented lady on Broadway stages playing comic roles. Her “The Fall of the House of Borden/The Alibi” was well-interpreted.
Pretty Baldwin Wallace junior Andie Peterson nicely textured the role of Alice, Lizzie’s neighbor and secret lover. Her “Will You Stay?,” jointly sung with Kirtley (Lizzie) was nicely interpreted.
Jeff Herrmann’s free-standing house, which not only forms the boundaries for the acting area, but reveals the on-stage band, is right on as a setting design for Bussert’s image for the show.
Charlotte M. Yetman’s spandex, see-through materials and goth costumes, help both in character development and in setting the right rock attitude.
Carlton Guc does a nice job of balancing the loud band sounds with the performer’s voices. Somehow, he even tames the bad Beck sound system, so that every spoken and sung word and lyric is easily heard.
Capsule judgment: The BW/Beck production is a high tension, rock-centric musical that has the audience bopping in their seats. Anyone who likes good singing and acting, powerful music and interesting story, will have a goth-blast at “Lizzie.”
Lizzie: The Musical runs through February 27 in the Senney Theater of Beck Center for the Arts. For tickets go to beckcenter.org or call 216-512-2540 x10.