The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program brings students to various productions around Chicago, teaching them about arts criticism as they try their hand at writing reviews. The opinions of the students are their own; we workshop the pieces in seminar every other week, and then they edit their reviews before publication. These reviews from our Fall session are edited by Oliver Sava and Regina Victor.
I loved this show. To be absolutely honest I am not sure if I can provide a measured and calculated analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Firebrand’s debut musical because the only thing that really comes to mind is that totally rocked.
Lizzie lives up to everything it says it will be. Starting the show, I had a split second of hesitation because how were these four women going to hold my attention for an entire hour before intermission? In such a small space? But I soon realized I had nothing to worry about.
The actors walked out with such conviction that I already felt my fingertips begin to tingle, the opening sequence was terrifying and wonderful. Truly taking advantage of everything they were given, the heavy incorporation of the mic stands into the sharp choreography made Lizzie immediately felt like a rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza. Evoking badass ladies of a long gone rock era, a quartet of gloriously distinct voices provided a sound that forced me to remember why musical theatre was my first love. When these women opened their mouths I swear I felt the hair being blown back from my face, convenient as it allowed me a clearer view of the well thought out staging.
In such a small space with such a small cast, Lizzie could have easily been uncomfortable. But the consistently striking stage pictures never failed to amaze me. Each time I began to settle into my seat and simply take in what was going on in front of me, I was shocked to the edge again, struggling to quiet the voices in my head screaming, “Holy shit did you see that?!?!?”. I desperately tried not to blink so I wouldn’t miss any of the details in Victoria Bussert’s direction.
My only wish is that I did want to see a much longer second act. Act 1 was a gorgeous portrayal of conflict and rising tension, a dive into the heavy restraints that a body swimming with estrogen would experience in 1800’s Massachusetts. Act 2 was a sexy, attitude-fueled romp that took those restraints and used them to put on a grand show, playing with those heavy chains like a cat with a mouse.
Liz Chidester’s progression of Lizzie Andrew Borden was truly a sight to behold. Her slow and steady build towards the boiling point is intense and beautifully poignant. When she finally crosses over the threshold and slips on her new insanity like a comfortable fur coat I was entranced. Watching her level out to a point where she’s totally O.K. with brute force and unspeakable violence is truly a sight to behold. Her grand return in the second act brought actual gasps from the house. These can be accredited to the most dramatic costume change I have ever seen. The first act costumes were gorgeous and timely: long skirts and tight corsets, hidden ankles and high necks. The clothing was appropriate and respectable, just as the women were. But upon the bludgeoning of Lizzie’s dear sweet father and stepmother, these women refused to accept the oppressive treatment of the system they were trapped in, and their fashion sense followed suit. The second act found each woman asserting her dominance unabashedly and I was so there for it.
Act one ends with Lizzie standing center stage in a stark white frock, dragging her bloody hands down her front and staining herself and the world around her. At the start of act two she is in a familiar position: in the chair she occupied before. But instead of an electric chair, it is now her throne. She lounges, lazy eyed and light limbed, viciously biting into a crisp pear and daring anyone to tell her to be more ladylike. It is brilliant and shocking, and the shifting power dynamic switch between her and her neighbor/lover Alice (Jacquelyne Jones) is intoxicating as we see Lizzie taking control of every portion of her life, including her sexuality.
These sisters were partners in crime. When they address the crowd following the discovery of the corpses, the sarcasm is thick as they pray to display their virtue, each trying to one-up the other in terms of sincerity. Leah Davis has some serious comedic chops as the Borden’s maid, Bridget. She was a wicked delight every time she graced the stage, peering at the audience with a knowing look and impish grin, inviting us all to be a part of the vicious secrets being spilled on the stage. I felt I was in the know about a naughty inside joke instead of the heinous crime I was witnessing. I wanted so much more of her, and was always sad to see her go.
For many, the idea of a feminist theatre company production unfortunately produces images of a night of preaching about the necessity of women in the world, bemoaning the hardships of the patriarchy, and in the most ignorant cases, touting an immense hatred of men. But Lizzie was plain and easy feminist. It was feminism at its purest. It was creating complex female characters and telling the story of their interactions with the world around them. And that’s where Firebrand gets it right.
Walking into The Den Theatre I was handed a newspaper and told to enjoy the show. I thought, “this must be a mistake,” because a newspaper? I haven’t seen one that wasn’t used for arts and crafts or as a puppy’s pee pad since way back. As I examined the newspaper further, I realized it was the program for Lizzie. Already the show was off to a good start and I hadn’t even been seated yet. As I continued skimming through the program I saw there was only a cast of four, all women and I wondered where the rest of it was, because when does that actually happen?. Stepping into the theater the stage looked to be no bigger than my room (I realize most if not all of you have no idea what my room looks like so the stage looked to be no bigger than a mini meat locker).
There was one large chair center stage, the kind of chair prisoners die in. Surrounding the chair was a series of benches. That was it. I had so many questions. How was this small stage and cast going to convey the very epic story of Lizzie Borden—which I knew because I watched the Lifetime TV show—and present it through song? The short answer: it didn’t. But I have to give the long answer otherwise this would be a Reddit post and not a review. There was a live band, on stage. ON STAGE Y’ALL. I loved this choice because we often forget so much more goes into shows than just the actors and directors, so to see this work being done directly behind the show gave me a much-needed warm feeling during a cold night.
As the show opened I felt bad ass bitch-ery radiating from all of these women in their own ways. It was in that moment I knew this was going to be nothing like the Lifetime special. The first line was not a line but a lyric, as was the next, and the next, and so on for so many minutes that an actual note I took was, “Are they gonna sing the whole time?” At first this unsettled me because I have the hearing of an 86-year-old man with TB and a bladder infection so I thought for sure I’d lose the story, but the opposite proved to be true. I learned much more in this show than I thought I would’ve. Not only do these ladies sing quite frequently, but they also enjoy doing backbends at the same time! What I found to be impressive at first turned to a bore after the 6th time, but after later deliberation it was decided that if I could successfully do and come back from a backbend while singing a tune about a vicious murdering spree, I would never stop either.
One of the many things this show did successfully was utilizing the entirety of a small space. The set was quite minimal, but at one point the chair became a treehouse of sorts, and of course visually it was still a chair, but the actors convinced me it was a treehouse. Not only was the space used well, but the lighting helped set the tone and atmosphere, with heavy moments saturated in red light.
As much as I enjoyed the show, I did have questions. Questions such as why did the director choose to have the women hold mics the whole time when they were also wearing ear mics? And how did Emma (Camille Robinson) feel about her sister, Lizzie (Liz Chidester)? This is a basic one, and it never really felt clear. Emma seemed to be on her sister’s side but it also felt like she would give up Lizzie if she could. The same is to be said for Alice (Jacquelyne Jones), who we learn has a secret relationship with Lizzie solely through movement, which is another beautiful thing about this production. Things are often revealed through motion rather than said blatantly, and you feel like a champ when you figure it out. Alice appears to pine for Lizzie’s affection and attention, but is eager to rat her out when she learns of the police’s involvement.
This story was told in a way I’d never seen before, from the diversity of the cast to the live band, it felt equal parts play and concert. Guess that’s a musical for ya. What a two-fer, though! See this sh*t, y’all.
There’s a very good live band in Lizzie directed by Andra Velis Simon. Liz Chidester is a fun Lizzie Borden, being lovably psychotic. There is some nice choreography that professional dancers might like. The sound mixing is excellent even. It is fairly short.
That’s the positive part of this review.
I genuinely went into Lizzie pumped. I like my murderous fare as much as anyone, and hoped that someone other than museums could take Lizzie’s Borden’s admittedly flimsy story and turn it into something grander. And I don’t mean The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, the terrible TV series that aired on Lifetime. After seeing Lizzie, I thought maybe I should catch some reruns of the TV show. Might have been harsh on it.
Rock as a genre tends to be fairly vague storytelling wise, often emphasizing raw emotion. Adding giant narrative threads with boxes that have to be ticked off during rock songs isn’t the best way to work to your strengths here. Andrew Lloyd Webber has never learned this, and that’s why Jesus Christ Superstar is the last good thing he’s written.
A good rock musical could be made with some talented lyricists or a great original score! Yeah, neither of those is here. Musicians/writers/lyricists Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Miner all share blame for songs that are simultaneously unmemorable and annoying. The songs used riffs so tired I swore I was watching a jukebox musical. Lyrics aren’t much better unless you’re the type to forget the story takes place in 1892, or think repeating the scandalous f-word in a chorus is edgy and shocking! I give the band even more credit for having to play this score and still rock out.
Lizzie wants to be a great schlock piece, fun and scandalous and shocking. And as a connoisseur of schlock of all kinds, this musical only works in that respect if you like your burlesque PG-13. I know on this tiny stage I can’t expect Rob Zombie levels of gore (or musical talent), but when the most violence you get in an entire play about an ax murderer is some melons being hit softly and then having pieces thrown around a stage, maybe you should throw more money into squibs.
It’s an intimate play, only four characters, refreshingly all women. But we have to deal with bad writing, and because of this we never feel the true intimacy we should with these characters. I don’t care about anyone on stage, or what happens to them, or even that Lizzie and Jacquelyne Jones’s Alice have fallen into a boring romance we’re gonna pretend is shocking because it’s two women doing the do on stage! Well, they just kiss, but this play treats lesbians as you’d think three men writing about women would, as something to gawk at rather than to actually care about.
The tiny stage forces director Victoria Bussert to keep finding ways to not have the actresses bump into each other on stage. I feel like with more space, she would have been able to do more here.
Lizzie has a lot of compounding problems that result in a dull experience. It’s ambitions are all taken with hesitation. It’s Jeb Bush, wanting you to be excited and have fun, begging you to clap at its mediocrity disguised as a revolution. I don’t recommend it and suggest instead you take up a good exploitation film.
The only thing more enjoyable than a historical fiction play is a historical fiction rock musical. Firebrand Theatre’s Lizzie is about the infamous Lizzie Borden case and what really happened that fateful day when Lizzie (Liz Chidester) axe-murdered her parents with a more modern musical touch. I’m not the biggest fan of musicals but this was the best one I’ve ever seen. From the live band to the awesome props I couldn’t decide what I loved most. The acting was superb and I loved the twisting theory they had for Lizzie and her neighbor, Alice (Jacquelyne Jones). All in all the only small thing that bugged me was all those back bends they tried to pull off in those corsets. I know it wasn’t possible then and it ain’t possible now.
Photos: Marisa KM
Director: Victoria Brussert