“Lizzie Bordon took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks…..”
How many of us sang this as a child? It may be all we know about Lizzie Bordon, the Falls River woman acquitted of killing her stepmother and father in 1892.
She has long been a subject of fascination – the reporters swarmed her home and the trial. In the last 50 years, several books have been written; last spring, an off-Broadway play about her opened.
Now TheaterWorks in Hartford is presenting Lizzie – a rock concert in forty whacks extended through Sunday, Oct. 29.
It is a delight.
I have to admit to some trepidations – I was afraid it was following in the footsteps of the Broadway hit Six, an excruciatingly loud rock concert about Henry the Eighth’s wives. I did not love that show.
But this had more substance. Plus, the sound design by Megan Culley does not shatter your eardrums, which lets you hear the lyrics.
The 90-minute show is split into two acts. The first tells the events leading up to the murders and the murders themselves. The second continues the story of the investigation and trial, but in a more modern format; it is more of a rock concert.
Historians and biographers do not agree that Lizzie, in fact, did commit the murders. They point to her uncle as having motive and opportunity, plus the fact that her father was not well-loved in the town. If Lizzie did kill them, writers have suggested that she was the victim of incest and that her father was changing his will to leave everything to his wife and nothing to his two daughters. Plus, some speculate that Lizzie was involved in a romantic relationship with her neighbor Alice Russell that her father disapproved of. It is true that her father had money but was the opposite of a spender. One writer pointed out that while indoor plumbing was the norm for the middle classes in Falls River, he had not installed it in the house.
The musical by Steven Cheslik-Demeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner shows us all the options.
The show begins and ends with the children’s song that we all know. But Cheslik-Demeyer, Hewitt, and Maner tell Lizzie’s story and that of her older sister, Emma, with simplicity.
After the opening, Lizzie tells us that her name is Lizzie Andrew Broden. Not Elizabeth. Andrew is her father’s name, included perhaps because he wanted a son.
“The House of Borden” sets the scene for this family drama, explaining the unusual relationships between the father and stepmother and the two adult daughters. When Lizzie sings “This Is Not Love,” you begin to see just how dysfunctional this family is. It is a chilling song. Then, we see the developing relationship with the neighbor, Alice, as well as Emma’s emotionless responses.
Both acts are filled with songs, most performed with handheld mics.
In Act 1, the costumes by Saawan Tiwari are more traditionally Victorian, with a hint of rock ‘n roll peeking out. In Act 2, they are all rock concert divas.
The music in act two drives the plot: the questions that police ask; the answers keep changing, and one wonders if Lizzie is psychotic or just very clever in her responses. Was her dress stained by blood? Why do the stories of the other three (Emma, Alice, and the maid, Bridget) keep changing?
It concludes with both the acquittal and a reprise of the children’s song.
Each of the four cast members is terrific. Sydney Shepherd endows Lizzie with both a touch of madness and a childlike innocence. I kept thinking of Brittany Spears for some reason. Courtney Bassett, as her sister Emma, is both manipulative and supportive. Nora Schell as Bridget keeps her from becoming a stereotype of an Irish maid who manipulates her employers. Kim Onah is excellent as Alice. This character is the most confusing; at times she is seducing Lizzie and then later turns on her.
Brian Prather has created a set design that features overlapping grey doors of various sizes. Rob Denton’s lighting design emphasizes both the coldness in the family and the blood that is spilled.
Lizzie, a Rock Concert in 40 Whacks, is energetic and intriguing. For tickets, visit TWHartford.org.
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