The story of Lizzie Borden, a young woman who is thought to have murdered her father and stepmother by axe in 1892, is not the obvious choice for a musical. And yet, it works to create a rock musical full of killer female vocals and strong performances all around.
Taking place in Greenwich Theatre, the show feels as if it’s on an arena stage, with four microphones set up almost ready for a girl band to make an appearance. Little set is used, mainly a bench and large chair, so instead we are focused on the four women’s stellar vocals (which I just won’t shut up about!) and the story itself. Beginning with the nursery rhyme “Forty Whacks” which sets the scene of what Lizzie does by the half-way point in the show, to an eerie music-box tinkling, creates the suspense needed for a show about murder and a case which is still, technically, unresolved. After this short ditty, though, the powerhouse voices kick in along with the guitars and the show truly starts. Steven Cheslik-Demeyer and Alan Stevens-Hewitt’s music is catchy and makes me want to get up and jump around with the cast, and the way in which lyrics (Steven Cheslik-Demeyer and Tim Maner) are used then abused, twisting depending on the situation in the show, done spectacularly, such as in “The Fall of the House of Borden”.
The cast – four incredibly strong women who hold the stage as their own – are phenomenal. Each taking the lead in their solo songs whilst also fitting together well in ensemble pieces, they are the cream of the crop in female musical theatre at the moment and I can’t see the show cast with anyone else. Bjorg Gamst’s protrayal of Lizzie Borden is spectacular, switching from tones of lightness and innocence in act one to the stereotypical ‘madness’ expected of Borden in act two after the murder of her parents; licking her lips and laughing manically at her sister, Emma (Eden Espinosa). Espinosa’s performance as Emma is fantastic, really coming into it’s own in act two, screaming “What the Fuck now, Lizzie?” in the greatest voice I have heard.
Jodie Jacobs’ performance as Bridget Sullivan, however, is one which confused me slightly.I assume she was the maid of the house of Borden , but other than her delivering messages I felt no real point or motivation coming from her character. Jacobs also had a habit of overacting and playing things up for laughs, which was fine in the beginning of the show, but when interrupting a duet to pick up a bench – effectively stopping the song – just to laugh and make a face at an audience member, I felt it had gone too far. Her vocals and delivery were excellent, however, but I just didn’t understand what her purpose was.
The role of Alice Russell, Lizzie’s friend, was wonderfully extended and brought out by Bleu Woodward, whose voice I absolutely adored. The creation of a romantic relationship between Alice and Lizzie comes from theories Lizzie was in a relationship with Bridget, but in this show it was portrayed naturally. Woodward’s performance was delicate and sweet a great contrast to the power and rage seen in previous songs; you can see how she was a real comfort to Lizzie. Woodward’s performance of “Will You Stay” was beautiful and one of the highlights of the show for me. I hope a cast recording is released!
In terms of production, one thing I loved was the styling of the show (designed by Michael Nohr). The women began the first act in 1800s period dress, adhering to the historic stimulus the show is based on. However, in the second half, this is stripped away to corsets and fishnet tights, tutus and combat boots, as the women truly embrace the rock musical style. This switch perhaps added to the state of Lizzie’s mind at this moment, in a sort of fantasy as everything is spiralling downhill.
The murder of the Borden parents was handled in a creative yet tongue-in-cheek way, with Lizie axing pumpkins which represented their head; copious amounts of blood and entrails splattered from them, and the front row were given raincoats to save their clothes being stained, as Lizzie threw bits of ‘brain’ around and lathered herself in her parents’ blood. It was very performance art-esque, which I loved, and much more enjoyable to watch than it being mimed or sung about in exposition.
LIZZIE is a fantastic show which is not only great fun, but gives great roles for women in musical theatre to play. It’s fun, feisty, and makes you want to jump around with them. Go see it while you can!
Thanks to London Theatre Bloggers (@theatreblogs) for sending me to this event. Though I was given a press ticket, all views are my own.