Review: 'Lizzie'

City Lights Theater takes on Borden family murders with humor, drama, rock & roll
The cast of 'Lizzie,' now playing at City Lights Theater, belt out hard-rocking tunes in Victorian era dress.

City Lights Theater Company's summer production is a fun, frightening and raucous musical retelling of one of America's most infamous murder cases.

Lizzie follows the life and (alleged) crimes of Lizzie Borden. Most known to the world through a grisly nursery rhyme, Borden famously went on trial for the murder of her parents in 1892, after their bodies had been found axed to death. Some say it was for revenge, others money and still others point the finger in different directions. And although Lizzie was eventually acquitted of the murders, her story still haunts American culture.

The show opens on a sparely furnished, almost bare, Victorian room. The walls are covered in picture frames. The largest two hold digital pictures of Lizzie's father and stepmother. The rest are empty.

Enter four women dressed in the style of the era. Each takes turns introducing herself and providing some exposition for Borden's story through opening songs like "Forty Whacks" and "The House of Borden." The quartet consists of Alice, Borden's friend and burgeoning love interest; Bridget, the creepy and ever-present housemaid; Emma, the other Borden girl; and Lizzie Borden herself.

From there, the cast sets out the inspiration and motivation for the murders, the plot to pull it off, and Lizzie's subsequent arrest and trial for the crimes. While historically the murder is typically tied to tensions over inheritance, Lizzie takes a wilder route, pinning the impetus for the crimes on sexual abuse, sexual repression and the growing desperation of a family without love.

The cast is small but talented. Alice, played by Sharon Lita, is Lizzie's friend, lover, and as the musical progresses, the only person in whom Lizzie can confide. Lita plays the part with earnestness and intimacy, punctuating their stormy love with her emotive voice. Emma Borden, played by Amy Soriano-Palag, is the proverbial type-A older sister. Her voice is as strong as her actions are manipulative, and Soriano-Palagi succeeds in portraying such complexities.

Lizzie, played by Hayley Lovgren, is a complicated character. From desperation to anger and revenge, Lovgren conveys Borden's justifiably spinning wheel of emotions throughout the bloody process, accentuating all of it with a mighty voice that, at moments, pushes the energy of Lizzie into the stratosphere. The performance of the night, however, goes to Chloe Angst as Bridget. Facing the crowd with a creepy, uncertain scowl, Angst immediately sets the unique tone of the character, only adding depth through her strong and varied vocal performance.

And while they all stand on their own, the cast works just as well as ensemble. From simple but tight staging and choreography to vocals, the cast moves in lockstep through the show, often enhancing the experience through their orchestrated but simultaneously unrestrained passion. At times, the musical feels more like a concert by an all-female band, like Sleater-Kinney or Bikini Kill, than a historical whodunit.

Another great feature of the show is the inclusion of a live band. And it's not just your average jazz cafe flair; everything from chimes, bells, violins and cellos are included in this genre-bending, electrifying soundtrack. In comparison with the actors, it's hard to ignore the music as it practically plays a lead role in Lizzie. From exclamations to cartoon-like pauses, the music acts as a quirky accompaniment to the pacing of the story.

Beyond bit parts, the sound design is one of the best features of the show. Casting the story in different tonal hues, the band plays rock, blues, and even post-hardcore to reinforce Lizzie and the others' struggle with bloodlust. Switching between plodding bass-driven beats and lush orchestral compositions, the music is organized in such a way that the quick pacing and transition between scenes never feels forced or hurried.

City Lights Theater Company has a knack for picking interesting, timely, and downright fun stories to bring to the stage, and Lizzie is no exception. All in all, Lizzie is a dark, intense and acerbically funny exploration of the fine line between female empowerment and murder.

July 13-Aug. 20
City Lights Theater Company

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