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Theater Review: Lizzie Borden – A New Musical

August 28, 2013
By

In recent reviews, I’ve reported on a regrettable Orlando theater trend of repeatedly reviving certain musicals instead of staging something previously unseen. So why am I now reversing myself and reveling in another resurrection; a threepeat, no less? For starters, it’s been 18 years since Lizzie Borden – A New Musical was first mounted at Theatre Downtown, and a decade since it was last seen, which would seem to satisfy any statute of limitation. Secondly, this Michael Wanzie/Rich Charron creation was incubated right here, and features cast and creatives who have all more than paid their dues on Central Florida’s stages. Finally, this is the rare Orlando original that has genuine potential to play far beyond Mickeytown … maybe even all the way to the Big Apple.

While her legend has largely faded today to a half-remembered playground song, the “40 whacks” small-town Sunday school teacher Lizzie Borden (Andrea Canny) gave her father Andrew (Frank McClain) and stepmother Abbey (Lori McCaskill) with an ax continue to reverberate over a century later in our modern obsession with murderesses. Thanks to the innovative aggressiveness of now-forgotten newspaperman Joseph Howard (Justin Mousseau), Borden’s 1893 murder trial made her a syndication sensation and feminist cause célèbre, but — as Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman have also discovered — being acquitted but infamous doesn’t lead to many long-term opportunities for advancement. Rather than fading out at “not guilty,” this meticulously researched musical explores Borden’s post-trial attempts to parlay her inheritance and notoriety into a theatrical career producing (and possibly romancing) superstar actress Nance O’Neil (Blue), at the expense of her relationship with elder sister/surrogate mother, Emma (Rebecca Fisher).

If you’re familiar with Wanzie and Charron’s lighthearted other works (Monorail Inferno, The Lion Queen) or the earlier, campier versions of this show, you’ll be pleasurably surprised by the non-exploitative depth and seriousness with which they treat the material. Credit for that goes first to Wanzie’s words — witty and contemporary without feeling either anachronistic or archaic — and the fluid, sensitive, scene-change-free direction of Kenny Howard, Tony-winning co-producer of Porgy & Bess, Matilda, and other Broadway hits.

But it is the twisted psychosexual triangle between the loathsome Mr. Borden and his equally-yet-oppositely abused daughters — as portrayed by three world-class musical theater vets — that give this show its spine and heart. McClain is a Judge Turpin-esque revelation, simultaneously pitiable and execrable in his miserly molestations, and when Andrew is axed at the end of Act One the remainder sorely misses his repulsive passion. Luckily, the love-hate relationship between spoiled yet smothered Lizzie (as self-righteous and stubborn as her daddy) and long-suffering spinster Emma is rendered with aching intensity by Canny and Fisher. The remainder of the cast supports solidly, from Blue’s sapphic scene-stealer and Mousseau’s strong-voiced semi-narrator to David Dorman’s half-wit half-brother William, with local favorites Joe Swanberg, Darby Ballard and Natalie Anne Schneider in a variety of bit parts.

Charron’s traditional musical theater score consists of a couple breakout ballads for Lizzie (“Step Into the Light,” “How”) and Nance (“My Secret Song”), a handful of thrilling ensemble climaxes, and a lot of same-sounding midtempo music that inoffensively moves the story along without sticking in the memory (much like Les Miserables). Musical director/pianist John B. deHaas’s arrangements are energetic without ever overwhelming the lyrics (a rarity around here) but would greatly benefit from the lusher acoustic sound of at least a small pit orchestra. Technical elements — especially Marcy Singhaus and Kyla Swanberg’s period costumes, and Tim Debaun’s rough-hewn attic set — are finely crafted without drawing focus.

As much as I enjoyed Lizzie Borden, there are some fixable flaws to address before its next out-of-town evolution. The modern-day framing story, wrapped around Howard’s history, wrapped around the Borden’s tale, is perhaps one layer too many, and Mousseau’s narration is unevenly intermittent. Likewise, after a nearly sung-through first half, the balance of music and dialogue goes off-kilter with a talky second act whose shortened score is nearly half reprises. While I applaud the decision to show restraint and not sensationalize the violence (this isn’t Evil Dead, after all) the entire first act feels like it’s building up to the killings, which are abruptly skipped entirely; a stylized dismemberment would be desirable. Finally, a bigger ensemble finale number is needed to put a button on the story’s relevance to modern murder and media.

With some judicious tweaks, I can easily see this show — key cast included — settling comfortably into Off-Broadway’s New World Stages between Peter and the Starcatcher and Avenue Q; don’t miss your chance to see it here first for a lot less money.

[Full disclosure: Frank McClain is the reviewer's landlord, but no reduced rent was provided.]

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