By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Approx. Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Picture it: Fall River, MA, August of 1892. Most say, “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.” We’ve all heard it at one point in our lives and when we got older, we may have delved more into the story. Along with writing reviews for theatre, and participating in theatre in most of my free time, I am an admitted and proud true-crime junkie, and the story of Lizzie Borden up there with the handful of stories and events I (and many others) cannot get enough of. My head exploded a little (in a good way) when I heard the Lizzie Borden story had been turned into a musical, and not just a regular musical, but a rock opera with a modern twist and I was even more ecstatic when I was invited to a performance from Guerrilla Theatre Front earlier this month. Directed by Greg Bell, with Music Direction by Megann Baldwin, Lizzie: The Musical, is an instant hit and one show you need to put on your calendar.
Set Design by Aaron Elson is nothing short of perfection. His design incorporates the space at Creative Labs (which one might call a warehouse basement, if that’s a thing), and it blends in so naturally with its surroundings. The raw material look of the entire set sets the mood the moment the audience walks in and the grunge works wonderfully with the production as a whole. Kudos to Elson for his creative design.
Amy Bell, Marie Bankerd, and Maggie Flannigan’s Costume Design is on point in bringing this 100+ year old story to life as well as dragging it into the 21st century. It’s a kind of “Modern Victorian,” if you will with corsets and lacy gloves, high-top boots, and floor-length dresses, all in dark and dank colors that set the mood of this grizzly but infatuating tale. The wardrobe choices for this production are suited nicely to the cast and they seem comfortable and confident in every garment making this a truly successful design from Bell, Bankerd, and Flannigan.
Lighting Design by Jim Shomo and Sound Design by Charles Hirsch work in tandem to create the feel for the entire production… ROCK. The intense light show puts you in a legit rock concert and the audience is encouraged to dance around, cheer, and whatever else mood takes them! Shomo seems to have a good grasp on this material and has created a design that fits in perfectly with strobe effects, flashes of light, blackouts when necessary and it’s easy to see he’s no stranger to this Lighting Design game. Hirsch had some challenges to deal with, including a non-traditional space, but he seems to have overcome the challenge and given us a good design, overall. Both Shomo and Hirsch are to be commended and applauded for their efforts on this production.
Blending in perfectly with the lights and sound, but also making a splash are the Projections by Christopher Uehlinger. His choices were impeccable and fit in with ever scene. The split screen and background projections kept the action moving onstage, but didn’t hinder it or get in the way. More and more projections are being used in theatrical productions and Uehlinger seems to be ahead of the game and I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work in other productions in the area and beyond.
Music Direction by Megann Baldwin is top notch with a top notch pit orchestra to boot! Her comprehension of this score translates beautifully to her cast and the melodies and harmonies soar throughout the theatre. The heavy rock style is not lost on Baldwin, either, as she navigates through this non-traditional musical with ease like a light in the darkness.
Greg Bell takes the helm of this production and his Direction of this piece exemplifies his grasp not only on this story, but the style of the piece, and his work is spot on. His staging is simple, but effective and his casting is just about perfect. His vision is presented clearly and the mix of rock concert and traditional theatre mesh effortlessly making for a fresh, engaging production that will have you interested from beginning to end. Bell is to be commended for his impeccable work on this production.
Moving into the performance aspect of this production, this quartet is nothing to mess with, Each and every lady in this cast has come ready to smash it with their A-game and that just adds to the beauty of this production. Not only do they smash it musically, they each seem to have a tight grasp on their respective character and play them to the hilt.
JacQuan Knox as Alice, the reserved friend and secret lover of Lizzie, is a joy to watch and with her honeyed vocals that seemed to be reserved until she let it all out with bursts of intensity that drove the song and sentiment home. This character, Alice, seems to be the one who has the steadiest grasp on real life and Knox portrays that authentically and confidently.
Caitlin Weaver, as Emma, the elder Borden sister, is a highlight in this piece as she navigates her way through this crazy story and she does it with a great confidence and presence that does not falter throughout. Every time she stepped onto the stage, she had a mission and accomplished it through her passionate portrayal of this character. Vocally, Weaver knocks it out of the park, especially in featured numbers such as “Sweet Little Sister.”
In the titiular role of Lizzie, Parker Bailey Steven is a powerhouse and left me wanting more. She effortlessly transitions from the shy, awkward young lady of domineering parental figures to a strong, confident woman with just a look, a gesture, and voice inflection. Her take on the infamous, complex Lizzie Borden is not a performance to be missed and she pulls it off with ease. With a hint of Stevie Nicks mixed with Janis Joplin, and Ann Wilson, Parker Bailey Steven effortlessly rocks the stage and makes this part her own.
The standout, however, in this production is Siobhan Beckett as Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, the sulky, scheming maid of the Borden household and sometimes narrator. I can’t say enough of about how much life Beckett gave me in her portrayal of this character. The character was spot on and she seems to embody this sly character with natural delivery of dialogue and movement and gesturing that has purpose. Vocally this woman can wail and makes the audience stand up and take notice. Her pure, distinct voice resonates throughout the space and gave me chills at points (which is not small feat). She takes this part, chews it up, spits it out, and gives a strong, heartfelt performance that sticks with you long after the show is over.
Final thought… Lizzie: The Musical is a high-energy, modern, engaging success that looks at one of the most enthralling true-crime events in this country’s history. Pulled right into the 21st century with rocking, in-your-face music, this isn’t your run of the mill musical theatre experience but it is an experience you do not want to miss, especially if you like your music loud and hard. With wailing actresses reminiscent of the Wilson sisters (Heart), Grace Slick, and Stevie Nicks, who will melt your face with their amazing vocals, staging that keeps you in the story, and a score that tells the story well with a modern twist, this is the show to see. Do yourself a favor and get out to see this show. You won’t regret it in the least and will leave thoroughly satisfied.
This is what I thought of Guerrilla Theatre Front’s Lizzie: The Musical… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
Lizzie: The Musical will play through October 25 (8pm & 11pm) and Oct 26 (8pm & 11pm) at Guerrilla Theatre Front, at Creative Labs, 1786 B Union Ave, Baltimore, MD 21211. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.
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