note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror
Thank goodness for the Stoneham Theatre folks: They try new things! Sometimes a Stoneham experiment doesn’t quite work, sometimes a show is terrific. The best way for the theater and its audiences to find out is to take a chance. “Lizzie Borden: The Musical” is terrific.
Christopher McGovern carefully researched the famous Fall River trial and came up with some plausible conclusions about what really happened on Aug. 4, 1892 -- and, more important, why. He has written a fascinating script, some beautiful and complex music, and with Amy Powers, lyrics that keep the story moving along at a fast clip.
Why (and whether) the wealthy, well-bred Miss Borden killed her stepmother and her father with a hatchet is still a mystery, and the known facts are open to interpretation. That’s why the shifting visual perspectives of the Stoneham production are especially clever. As each witness recounts events -- the Irish maid, Lizzie herself, Lizzie’s sister, a town matron and so on -- the physical location of doors, windows and stairs in the Borden house shifts. Sometimes the front door is stage right, sometimes stage left or in the back or in the front, as the staging literally “considers the source” of each testimony. Very effective.
Similarly, the mature Lizzie (Jayne Paterson) looks in her bedroom mirror and sees her young self step out (Andrea Ross). The Young Lizzie sings duets with the grown Lizzie and participates at critical points so that we never lose sight of the damaged, motherless child that the adult still is. When her harsh and miserly father chops off the heads of the grown Lizzie’s pet pigeons, both Lizzies go into shock.
This musical version of the tale artfully builds audience insight into Lizzie two ways: on the surface and beneath the surface. As it piles up facts about mental cruelties in the Borden household and Lizzie’s struggle to repress her anger, it leads the audience to expect an outburst and to assume it understands the whole why of the tragedy. But when the final revelation comes, it’s a surprise -- the kind of surprise a well-crafted detective novel produces, when one suddenly realizes that a clear path has been laid underground while one has been focused elsewhere. Perhaps in 1892, the people of Fall River were able to look back and realize they, too, had missed signs that were right under their noses.
The cast was excellent, especially Paterson and Ross. Ellen Peterson played Emma, Lizzie’s loving but baffled sister; Dale Place performed as both Lizzie’s father and the trial judge; Delina Christie played the cruel stepmother; Sara Inbar was delightful as the maid who unwittingly sparks the inferno; Christopher Chew was the handyman who helps Lizzie and then disappears; Kelly Ebsary, Michael Kreutz, Natalie Brown, Ceit McCaleb and Megan Gleeson were effective as gossipy, condescending townsfolk, torn between doing the right thing and maintaining their social standing.
Kent French was a splendid prosecutor wondering why Fall River people, even those who don’t like the Bordens, are uniformly mum on Lizzie’s shoplifting, and on the obvious tension and repression in her family. They draw together to protect the image of their town, as if that is a more noble goal than finding a murderer -- or as if they feel guilty for not preventing the tragedy. The prosecutor’s frustration with the careless detective (Corey Jackson) underscores the hopelessness of getting a conviction. The detective would never dream, for example, of going through the lingerie or laundry basket of genteel ladies to look for blood.
Among the many fine numbers, two songs stood out, both duets by the Lizzies. In “The House on the Hill,” as they daydream of a better life in the elegant mansion across the way, their longing for a happier family life is palpable. In “Fly Away,” they sing to their caged birds and sadly recognize that sometimes it is not possible to escape from prisons.
Director and choreographer Bill Castellino kept the complicated events flowing smoothly, highlighting the clues that the audience was not supposed to miss while maintaining the subtlety and ambiguity that surrounds the bare facts. Craig Siebels was the designer of the scenery, including tall movable panels with 19th Century iron grillwork and a suggestion of gaslight streetlamps. Rachel Padula Shufelt designed the lovely period costumes, Jane Siebels stage managed, and Carol Hanzel was casting director. Paul Miller was behind the evocative lighting that sometimes threw tall shadows of the actors against the background in a threatening Orson Welles sort of way.
This thought-provoking play runs through May 30 in Stoneham.