The story of Lizzie Borden has transfixed artists for 100 years. One of the latest entries into this abundant mix is the musical Lizzie, the first production of Theaterworks Hartfords’s 2023 – 2024 season. The show has the look and feel of an Off-Broadway (even Off-Off-Broadway) production with an indie-laced rock score, an on-stage band, and abstract videos projected continuously on the side panels of the small performance space.
The show, which runs a scant 95 minutes (this includes a brief intermission), is an eclectic examination of the possible root causes for Ms. Borden’s 40 whacks to her stepmother and father. Entertaining in a raucous, sometimes concert-like fashion, Lizzie is peformed by four dynamic actresses. There is Sydney Shepherd, a waif-like, troubled young woman at the center of the fray. Courtney Bassett, her practical, yet off-center sister Emma; Kim Onah, Lizzie’s friend, maybe lover, Alice Russell; and Nora Schell, the household maid Bridget Sullivan.
The book by Tim Maner supposes a number of possibilities for Lizzie’s unlady-like behavior: sexual abuse, disinheritance, dislike for her stepmother, and simple madness. They are presented as short scenes, alternating between quick bursts of dialogue and full-throttled songs under Erika R. Gamez’s tight musical direction and Megan Culley’s piercing Sound Design. The score by Steven Cheslik-Demeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner reminded me of the songs I’d hear in my youth at the clubs in New York City’s East Village. Loud, sometimes indiscernible but, more often than not, somehow melodic.
Brian Prather’s Scenic Design - a wall of doors – appears to represent vistas into the characters’ soul or psyche. The center doorway, suddenly opening and closing throughout Act I, seems like the gates of hell itself.
The first part of the show’s garb, from Costume Designer Saawan Tiwari, and lighting, from Rob Denton, are done with greys, blacks, with a splash of red. This helps give the audience a feel for the repressed, controlled environs of the characters. It fits into what Director Lainie Sakakura states in the program notes about Lizzie – it gives “a voice for the marginalized, the furious, oppressed and ignored. “
In the second half of the show – the trial and its aftermath – the drab puritanical appearance of the musical is wildly transformed to a more empowered, feminist-centric celebration. The band rolls on to the stage, the women appear freer and the outfits lean towards pop singer Madonna, circa late 70’s, early 80’s.
Ms. Sakakura effectively incorporates Camilla Tassi’s conceptual projections to give the production an eerie, menacing aura. The director weaves all of this into a compact, entertaining musical. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the engaging cast and sheer exuberance of the show make Lizzie a theatrical experience well-worth taking.
Lizzie, playing at Theaterworks Hartford through October 29. Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.