Imagine a Victorian parlor where music is played and shared very much as it was in a bygone era, with songs and stories ripped from the headlines and whispers of a folk legend. Now, place yourself in a darkened club, where decibels assault the ears, where an edgy band pumps out tunes for a gutsy yet feminine girl group. Now combine these descriptions into one, kick-ass, roof-raising experience.
Welcome to Lizzie at Anacostia Playhouse, the current production of DC’s own proto-feminist theatre troupe, Pinky Swear Productions. Pinky Swear focuses on theatre with “well-crafted, believable, and engaging roles for women.” The show and the subject fit the company like a fingerless glove made of leather and lace.
Lizzie is about none other than one of America’s most scandalous and enduring legends, Lizzie Borden of forty whacks fame. The show even incorporates the old rhyme into the score:
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
Gave her father forty-one.
Lizzie, immortalized by that schoolyard chant, was officially acquitted of the murder of her father and stepmother, and the case officially remains unsolved. The interest in the double homicide and Lizzie’s potential guilt has kept her story close to the surface since the days of the original crime, the summer of 1892. Books, films and TV adaptations of the story, with varying degrees of speculation have followed, including this musical adaptation, premiering in an early form in 1990.
Pinky Swear has been itching to produce Lizzie for nearly a decade and the show is clearly a labor of love. That labor is likely to be a feast for some eyes and ears, especially die-hard Pinky Swear fans, and audience members who eat up theatre pieces that are a little off kilter – think Fringe. Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner – Lizzie’s trio of writers – have taken their inspiration more from the music world than the musical theatre world. Punk bands such as Bikini Kill, and rockers like The Runaways and Heart were big influences, according to the website, just as the legend of Lizzie Borden and her axe-wielding ways.
Admittedly, I am a big, old square with antiquated tastes in music, so I had to look up all of these music icons, except Heart. Based on what I heard at Lizzie, my point of reference was Rent or Spring Awakening but even those scores borrow sounds from Broadway as much as indie rock. Telling the story of a legendary strong woman like Lizzie Borden with such a hard-edged, fully-amped score makes perfect sense, however. This is no ordinary story and its hybrid rock show-song cycle tells it in a colorful and operatic manner – a blood-soaked, “grrrl” power rock opera.
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closes February 5, 2017
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Remember the Victorian parlor image I mentioned earlier? Now imagine four ladies, dressed somewhere between naughty French postcards and Steampunk cosplay, complete with corsets, boots and punked out, rock-goddess hair – designed with an eye for detail by Liz Gossens. Lizzie, sister Emma, neighbor Alice, and housemaid Bridget, stomp, strut, thrust, and parade around the space boldly, fully embracing the take-no-prisoners, all-out assault of a show.
As Lizzie, Alani Kravitz (her Pinky Swear debut) makes for a striking leading lady. Alternating between emotional angst and wounded bird, Kravitz plays Lizzie as a haunted, dark angel, tempered by a young lady clawing her way through life. Kravitz’s high belt with a rock-diva power works its magic with Lizzie’s songs, such as “This Is Not Love” and “Will You Lie.” As the central character – here portrayed as a full out merry murderess with no speculation – Kravitz connects with the other characters fully, displaying complex relationships, even while not every character is fully drawn.
Take for example Emma, Lizzie’s older sister (Rebecca Speas.) Emma, like her sister, hates her stepmother and expresses mixed feelings about their father, Andrew. Emma is more sensible and not as emotional as Lizzie, but that is about all I picked up on. Speas handles Emma’s songs with a strong, expressive voice, even if her material is not as substantial.
By contrast, the Borden’s next door neighbor, Alice, is given a dynamic relationship with Lizzie, one that crosses a line that was certainly clearly verboten in small town Massachusetts in 1892. Allyson Harkey exudes a haunted sweetness, pointing to her longing to be even closer to Lizzie from their first encounter. Harkey shares one of the warmest moments in the show with Kravitz when Alice and Lizzie move to culminate their mutual fascination with each other, the duet “Will You Stay?”. Later, Alice is embroiled in the investigation and Lizzie’s trial, adding even more layers to their connection.
The Borden household’s maid, Bridget, is the fourth member of the dramatis personae. Pinky Swear’s artistic director Karen Lange clearly relishes playing the all-seeing, all-knowing housekeeper. With sardonic flair and a sarcastic edge, Lange turns in a memorable performance, complete with a big voice and killer riffs. Bridget is in some ways Lizzie’s partner in crime, at least as this musical tells us.
The axe-wielding and bloody shenanigans are magnificently backed up by a five-piece combo that tirelessly and effortlessly bangs out the score. Piero Bonamico (music director and keyboards), primary cellist Katie Chambers, Alice Fuller (percussion), guitarist Mark Schramm, and primary bassist Josh Ballard could fill up a club on their own.
Along with the provocative costumes for the quartet of ladies, the playing space at Anacostia Playhouse has been transformed into club space, bathed in black and red, open enough to allow for the performers to fill the space with their punk-rock skullduggery. Adding to the club atmosphere, and providing vibrant punctuation is Katie McCreary’s vibrant lighting design. Kenny Neal’s well-balanced sound design boosts up the power vocals of the singers.
By the end of Lizzie, there was a sense of victory, as the girls roared out their last notes, having shared their tale of revenge, murder, and passion.
For Pinky Swear’s full account of Lizzie’s development, check out the official website: http://www.lizziethemusical.com/about/
Lizzie . Music by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt . Lyrics by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Tim Maner . Book by Tim Maner . Additional Music by Tim Maner . Additional Lyrics by Alan Stevens Hewitt . Based on an Original Concept by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Tim Maner . Orchestrations by Alan Stevens Hewitt . Director: Marie Byrd Sproul . Featuring: Alani Kravitz, Karen Lange, Rebecca Speas, and Allyson Harkey . Music director: Piero Bonamico . Producer: Ty Hallmark . Lighting design: Katie McCreary . Sound design: Kenny Neal . Costume design: Liz Gossens . Dramaturg: Maegan Clearwood . Choreographer: Rachel Hynes . Production manager: Ryan Maxwell . Stage manager: Sam Reilly . Produced by Pinky Swear Productions . Reviewed by Jeff Walker .