Review: "Lizzie the Musical" at Firebrand Theatre

Jordan Nickels

“Lizzie Borden took an axe
Andgave Chicago forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave the audience forty-one.”

Unapologetic, raw, powerful, and disturbing in the best possible way. Those are the adjectives I use to describe the first show of Firebrand Theatre’s 2017-18 season, Lizzie the Musical. This all-female quartet tells the story of the famous serial killer, Lizzie Borden, through a punk rock infused score with a twist of humor. While this show is messy in every sense of the word, it culminates into a musical so unique that it defies expectations of what a contemporary score can do.

In the premise of a rock concert, these women play out the lives of Lizzie Borden and her “accomplices” that reside in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. Lizzie, abused and neglected, was charged for the murder of her father and stepmother by hacking them to death with an axe at their family home. However, the musical goes much deeper than the crime, and into the psyche of Lizzie Borden herself. You get to see the madness that drove her to commit the murders, and the freedom she experiences once the deed is done. She is surrounded by Emma, her older sister, Bridget, the family’s maid, and Alice, Lizzie’s flame who lives next door. These women influence her various decisions throughout the story, driving her to her breaking point, be it unconsciously or intentionally.  

The anchor of this production was Leah Davis as the Borden’s saucy maid Bridget, whose comedic chops and bombastic personality kept the audience wrapped around her finger. Alice was played by Jacquelyne Jones, who portrayed Alice as a very perplexed soul looking for love in the wrong places. Her heartbreak and chances at retribution, brought the right touch of emotion to this rock filled musical. Emma was played by the incredible Ciara Renée, who is no stranger to the Borden household. She brought a darkness and playfulness in her interactions with her younger sister, and it was a pleasure to see Ciara in her element. Rounding out the cast was Lizzie A. Borden, played by Liz Chidester. The intensity Liz brings to this role is incredible, backed by her haunting rock voice that made this score seem like it was written for her soulful sound.

There were a lot of creative choices taken with this production that worked well, including the minimalist approach to the scenic design. Besides the focal point of Lizzie throne-like chair, four microphone stands, and various props, these alone made up the look of this world. However, this is the type of musical that leaves these luxuries behind, as the focus is shone on the amazing score and strongly written characters that inhabit Lizzie’s headspace. I enjoyed the punk score, and thought it was one of the best rock scores written for a musical in a long time. The audience was on their feet, and you almost felt like you were at a concert than a night at the theater. However, another element I thoroughly enjoyed was the comedy written for such a dark subject matter. With such a bizarre story and the gruesome events that followed, the humor really balanced out the action and showed these ladies weren’t afraid to not take themselves seriously. This was capitalized in the end of Act 1 for the murder of the Lizzie’s parents, allegorized by melons that were hacked to mush over a screaming crowd. This Gallagher-esque moment softened the blow that other musicals wouldn’t dream of attempting.

In the end, many compare this show to Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Sweeney Todd. However, I think this musical is distinctively Lizzie. In our current world plagued by unsatisfactory views of women, it’s refreshing to see a show take an axe to sexism and toxic masculinity in this style. Lizzie the Musical tackles topics of sexual abuse, murder, homosexuality, and gender through the eyes of four young women, and women alone. These characters are messy and complicated, yet confident and ferocious. It’s rare to see a musical starring all women, and only women, especially in such a punk rock atmosphere. It’s a trend that I hope we see more of in the future, with the growth of amazing feminist theatre companies like Firebrand Theatre, who are dedicated to propelling powerful women, like Lizzie Borden, to the forefront.

Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for over two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8.

Photo: Marisa KM