Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Lizzie Borden: The Musical"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


music and book by Christopher McGovern
lyrics by Christopher McGovern and Amy Powers

directed and choreographed by Bill Castellino
musical direction by Timothy Evans

Lizzie Borden … Jayne Paterson
Young Lizzie … Andrea Ross
Emma Borden… Ellen Peterson
Andrew Borden; The Judge … Dale Place
Abby Borden … Delina Christie
Bridget Sullivan … Sara Inbar
Adelaide Churchill … Kelly Ebsary
Robert Flaherty; Reverend Kent … Christopher Chew
The State … Kent French
Detective Fleet … Corey Jackson
Mr. Lutton; Patrick… Michael Kreutz
Mrs. Helen Brayton … Natalie Brown
Mrs. Durfee … Ceit McCaleb
Mrs. Bence … Megan Gleeson


Conductor; Pianist … Timothy Evans
Reeds … Arthur Bakopolus
Cello … John Bumstead
Percussion … Mick Lewander
Keyboard … Dorothy Travis

The enduring fascination of Lizzie Borden, the Fall River woman accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892, is simple and two-fold: the bloody deed, right out of Greek tragedy, erupted amidst the corseted respectability of Victorian Massachusetts, and the enduring mystery of whether or not Ms. Borden committed the murders has left her open for speculation and thus interpretation. Lizzie’s latest incarnation, LIZZIE BORDEN: THE MUSICAL by Christopher McGovern and Amy Powers, is tame when placed alongside LIZZIE BORDEN, Jack Beeson’s grim chamber opera which premiered in the mid-1960s: Mr. Beeson keeps the action all within the Borden household, using only a handful of characters (the trial is passed over); his Lizzie is slowly driven to madness by Mr. Borden’s tyranny and Mrs. Borden’s malice (she commits the murders, offstage, with a scimitar) --- her derangement meets the purple demands of grand opera but is psychologically grounded for modern tastes (a spinster morphing into Electra); the one major story-change is the addition of a sea captain who takes Lizzie's sister away from it all. Mr. McGovern and Ms. Powers’ work is less imaginative, more factual, down to the stock-Irish maid washing the windows on the morning of the murders --- they open up the action to include the townspeople of Fall River, snooping and gossiping throughout; there is much hustle and bustle and numerous flashbacks, with the trial repeatedly stirred in for good measure, yet very little actually happens: their Lizzie is a passive victim of ongoing incest, ever yearning in Disney-fashion to be free (the murders are committed by a smitten handyman in token of his infatuation); Lizzie’s apron and dress may get stained along the way but her heart and soul, never (she even gains a sort-of happy ending). Both scores are unremarkable: Mr. Beeson’s opera is a three-act recitative though not without dramatic power; Mr. McGovern and Ms. Power’s musical --- one more product of the post-Sondheim theatre --- comes to life only when Lizzie bares her thoughts, alone or with her 12-year-old self; their final duet becomes the evening’s obligatory Anthem. I’ll take the hilarious “Lizzie Borden” finale from NEW FACES OF 1952, anytime, where the trial occurs during a hoedown (“Oh, you CAN’T chop your PAPA up in [boom!] MASS-a-CHU-setts,” etc.).

LIZZIE BORDEN: THE MUSICAL is receiving its New England premiere at the Stoneham Theatre where, despite its flaws, it is beautifully sung from top to bottom and likewise costumed by Rachel Padula Shufelt, with Jane Paterson and Andrea Ross outstanding as the two Lizzies; Ms. Paterson, with her hushed, wounded tones and handsome mask, evokes the anguish lying just beneath her character’s buttoned-up façade (pity that she isn’t allowed to take matters --- and the axe --- into her own hands) and Ms. Ross, who has just stepped into her teens, already sings as bright and clear as a Broadway bell; may we see them both, often, in the future. Dale Place continues to be Beantown’s answer to Snidley Whiplash but this time around brings a touch of weary mortality to his latest villainy and Delina Christie makes a fascinating orgress out of Mrs. Borden. There are unintentionally farcical moments --- Lizzie answers the back door with the bloody axe wrapped in her apron; later, she tries to burn a suspicious piece of clothing right under the nose of a tea-sipping biddy --- but there are also moments that startle: Mr. Borden killing Lizzie’s pigeons (a foreshadowing if ever there was one); the heated battle between stepmother and daughter as they fold laundry together; and, hauntingly, the final showdown between Lizzie and Mr. Borden on a slowly revolving turntable with the latter reclining on a low-backed divan that will soon become a sacrificial altar. It is an image as dark and primal as the father-daughter crucifixion in THEY NAMED US MARY, several months ago, and makes one regret that Lizzie is often pushed aside for yet another chorus from the chatty-catty townspeople. Craig Siebels provides the show’s true horrors with his set design of numerous sliding panels; on the night I attended, the stage hands could not get said panels in sync with each other, oftening revealing glimpses of backstage life or making a tardy slide-in during a crucial scene. Unless checked, they could give the Lyric’s current production of NOISES OFF a run for its money.

"Lizzie Borden: The Musical" (6 - 30 May)
395 Main Street, STONEHAM, MA
1 (781) 279-2200

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