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BRILLIANTLY BLOODY: America’s answer to ‘Sweeney Todd’ is ‘Lizzie: The Musical’

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Wilmington is in for a spectacular run with Panache Theatrical Productions’ “Lizzie: The Musical.”

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First things first: “Lizzie: The Musical” is a badass theatre experience! It takes the nightmarish true story of parricide, the murders and trial of Lizzie Andrew Borden. Just like the news headlines in the late 1800s, it terrifies the audience, number after number.

GIRL POWER: ‘Lizzie: The Musical’ stars (l. to r., from top) Elisa Eklof Smith, Heather Setzler, Georgie Simon and Meagan Golden. Photo by James Bowling

GIRL POWER: ‘Lizzie: The Musical’ stars (l. to r., from top) Elisa Eklof Smith, Heather Setzler, Georgie Simon and Meagan Golden. Photo by James Bowling

Borden’s stepmother, Abby Borden, was her first victim, suffering 18 blows from a hatchet, while Andrew Borden, her father, suffered 11 whacks (very different from the nursery rhyme we’ve all come to know, “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks…”). Under director and Panache’s cofounder Anthony Lawson, the show is capped with painstaking detail—yet again setting the bar high in community theatre. Scratch that, they are the bar in Wilmington theatre. As a company, Panache strives to bring new and edgy forms of shows to the stage, a la “Heathers: The Musical,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Toxic Avengers.” They seem to be growing in quality, as proven by their Wilmington Theatre Award for “Fun Home.”

A thick, neon-colored haze washes over the audience as they scurry to their seats. Blues and reds bathe the future scene of the crime and only hint at the majesty to come, thanks to Cole Marquis’ lighting design. Marquis illuminates the dark tale with an all-encompassing light show. The use of floor lights cast spinning circles around the theater to give manic life to the spinning wheels in the Borden girls’ heads, as they plot murder. It casts shadows of women against the walls to help build a foreboding air through the end of the first act.

While rather simple in its design, the details put into Benedict R. Fancy’s scenes are a treat. Lining the theater’s back wall with the black framing of the Borden home, two plain doors operate as a way in and out of the onstage world. The blankness gives life to the lack of love within the home. A smaller, elevated stage features painted brick work—the only prop that looks real.

The production incorporates graphic designs projected in a seamless way to establish the outside world. The most successful is an old-timey, rigid-looking photo of the patriarch Andrew Borden. It’s a smart image to dominate over the play, as it gives a silent, unkind, ominous presence to prod, torment and haunt the titled character.

And I cannot praise the cast enough. Each member stakes her claim rightfully. They all possess a vocal range to wow, stun and get the audience’s heads banging. Opening with the number “Forty Whacks” is Lizzie Borden (Georgie Simon), her older sister, Emma (Heather Setzler), the house’s maid Bridget Sullivan (Elisa Smith), and finally Alice Russell (Meagan Golden)—Lizzie’s only friend and reprieve from her put-upon home life. The audience sees police lineup to survey plots of the suspects.

Heather Setzler, a staple across stages, has truly outdone herself in the role of Emma. It could very well be the best thing she has brought to life. Her ability allows Emma to see the pieces on the board and decide how to move them to her benefit. It matches the cunningness and coldness of Cersei Lannister. In fact, her murderous seeds bear Lizzie’s deadly fruits. In her commanding number “What the Fuck Now, Lizzie?” she becomes fully aware of her mistake, thinking her sister was a subtle scalpel instead of the board sword.

Standing in for something of a Greek chorus in “The Fall of the House of Borden” is Irish maid Bridget. She watches as the Borden girls weave their webs, only to laugh as they become entangled in it themselves. Smith takes what could have been a throwaway role of the bunch and adds an eerie air, almost as if she were a demonic force witnessing the murderous goings-on that would damn the women’s souls.

Being the only shred of innocence on stage is Meagan Golden’s Alice Russell, who is marvelous. Believing she understands the secret tortures of Lizzie, Alice tries to love her, as seen in beautiful numbers like “If You Knew” and “Maybe Someday.” Sadly, her love is only half-heartedly returned and dashed when Lizzie’s true internal darkness is exposed in “Will You Lie.”

Though, with playing the titled role, the entire production rests on the shoulders of Georgie Simon and her take on Lizzie Borden—and does she deliver! Owning the role, Simon hypnotizes every audience member who hears her siren-like voice. “This Is Not Love” tragically masks nurture vs. nature that is going on in the Borden homestead. Her eyes read so powerfully, depicting all emotions from malicious madness to manipulation. She spits the words, “But I’m Daddy’s little girl now” with pure venomous poison. Her work truly needs to be seen.

Stephanie Amen’s costume designs turn each leading lady into four equally dominating and deadly femme fatales. The looks mix burlesque with punk-rock grit and ooze sex appeal.

Per last week’s gripe over sound quality during “Whorehouse” (which I apologize for putting the blame on Thalian Hall over the production company, Thalian Association), “Lizzie” superseded expectations of quality sound design, handled and leveled by J. Robert Raines. As well the music director is un-fucking-believably good. The levels are so well balanced.

The band’s presence on stage is mere inches from the plot unfolding. Led by Raines on guitar, Justin Lacy (guitar), JJ Street (drums), Linda Marcus (keyboard) and Eli Stafford (bass) rock out the studio theater. How they master the show’s music should bridge the gap between metal-heads and theatre fans alike.

Wilmington is in for a spectacular run with Panache Theatrical Productions’ “Lizzie: The Musical.” Rarely do stars align so right in a community-theatre setting. In fact, for people who might not believe theatre is their “scene,” “Lizzie” is a different beast. It’s modern, fast-paced and shines a light on a fascinating subject. Plus, it is a rock show.

Lizzie: The Musical
Through June 2, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $22-$25 •

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