As my theater companion and I rose enthusiastically for a well-deserved standing ovation to City Theater Company's cast of LIZZIE, I smiled and told him, “Sisters are slayin’ it for themselves.” He laughed and nodded and told me to write it down. It’s a corny homage to the Eurythmics, but it fits.
We had just thoroughly enjoyed a rock opera that tells the tale of the infamous Borden double murders in Fall River, Massachusetts – for which youngest daughter Lizzie was tried and acquitted. The legend of Lizzie Borden is a part of Americana, but I can’t say the general public knows the gory details. (I didn’t.) This show covers most of the facts and theories surrounding the 1892 axe murders of Lizzie’s father and his second wife in their home.
But LIZZIE is less a history lesson and more a head-banging rock show that somehow includes incredibly tender moments. Lead actress Darby Elizabeth McLaughlin steals the show from three other amazing actresses by portraying Lizzie as confused, angry, demented, caring, conniving, steely and vulnerable.
McLaughlin showcases her acting chops and wonderful vocal abilities in a space where the audience is so close it’s almost part of the staged action. We are right there with Lizzie in her torment and famous act of conflict resolution. McLaughlin’s portrayal of a young tortured soul is eerie and touching. She impeccably hints at her character’s understanding of how she can escape her dreadful life through an unspeakable act.
But the three supporting actresses – Jill Knapp (Emma Borden), Kyleen Shaw ('Maggie' the maid) and Grace Tarves (Alice the neighbor) – are also outstanding. Shaw’s Bridget/Maggie is an opportunist who knows all about the goings on in “The House of Borden.” Meek neighbor Alice is given depth by Tarves, whose voice melds beautifully with that of McLaughlin in several duets. Knapp’s portrayal of judgmental but caring older sister Emma is strong and her vocals soar in her solos. Knapp’s frenzied performance of What The Fuck Now, Lizzie?! is a show highlight.
The six-piece Fall River Band was tight and got our toes tapping and heads bobbing during stand-out songs like This Is Not Love and Sweet Little Sister. Under the direction of Joe Trainor, the talented band is nimble enough to play rock, metal and gospel – like in the song Watchmen For the Morning, where our protagonist gets fitted with a straightjacket.
Director Michael Gray allows his actresses to roam throughout the American Horror Story-style set and deliver their lines facing any direction. The employment of wireless microphones allows the performers to quietly deliver some dialog plus fill the room with their powerful singing voices. Costumers Kerry Kristine McElrone and Lauren Peters have their women dressed in all white, and while some scenes relay a virginal innocence, others evoke images of witches gathered around a cauldron. One neat visual was Lizzie walking on stools placed before her every step by the other women while contemplating how to “clean a stain.”
The climax and finale of LIZZIE are superb and mesh the closing songs into a medley of sorts. Thirteen Days in Taunton recalls the Shel Silverstein/Johnny Cash song 25 Minutes to Go in that it is gallows humor at its finest. All four principles are strong over the final five songs, which cover the murder trial and aftermath. Chances are you’ll cheer the outcome and want to dance in the aisles like the audience on opening night.
LIZZIE originated in 1990 as a four-song experimental show by writer/director Tim Maner and songwriter Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer. It took help from Alan Stevens-Hewitt (and almost 20 years!) to fully flesh out the narrative, music and staging of the rock opera. The 2009 show was nominated for three Drama Desk awards in New York City during its initial run. The current two-act version at City Theater Company was arranged by the authors in 2013.
The limited run of LIZZIE ends this week with 8:00pm shows on September 13, 14, 15 and 16 in The Black Box at Opera Delaware Studios (4 South Poplar Street, Wilmington, DE 19801). Tickets are $28 (general admission), $25 (military), $20 (student), and $15 (child age 15 and under) and can be purchased online or at the box office. There is also a $40 VIP ticket package available.
Visit city-theater.org for more information, tickets and the remaining CTC season schedule.