Last week marked an important celebration for the theatre community in Wilmington: the reopening of the newly renovated North Front Theatre, formerly known as City Stage, on the fifth floor of the Masonic Temple building at 21 N. Front St. Panache Theatrical Productions presented its inaugural curtain-up production, “Lizzie, The Musical,” a collaborative rock opera by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner. It is an encore presentation; Panache had a tremendously successful debut with it last year in the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre at Thalian Hall.
With the disappearance of the film industry and the opening of the Wilson Center, smaller theatrical venues have struggled to remain in business over the last few years in Wilmington. For a while it felt like “the roll call for the deceased,” as venue losses mounted. The beautiful masonic theatre on the fifth level of the Masonic Temple Building was limping along, struggling to find an identity. That theatre has always felt like a wonderful hidden gem, tucked away with a beautiful proscenium and gorgeous wood detailing throughout the house. Years of wear and extensive use took its toll, and then Hurricane Florence hit Wilmington. It looked like the beautiful little theatre might be gone for good, as the building suffered extensive damage. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise in some ways because insurance money was spent wisely to restore the space. Now, after a lot of hard work, it is back. Honestly, it has not looked this beautiful in my lifetime. The space is stunning, with a new lighting package and sound system to boot.
“Lizzie: The Musical” is not a typical theatrical experience. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be “aggressive storytelling.” Four women with microphones present a rock concert retelling of the possible events around the ax murders of the Borden family in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892. Lizzie A. Borden (Georgie Simon) and her older sister, Emma (Heather Setzler), are living in “a long silent war” with their father and his new wife, whom they refer to only as “Mrs. Borden.” The third party to this war, their maid, Bridget Sullivan (Chandler Davis), sees a lot of what goes on (she is the closest to a narrator the show has). But the only side Sullivan is on is her own. She weighs her options, like who has money right now, and who is interested in spending it on her cooperation? Davis is the only cast member change from the 2019 production. Elisa Smith played the role last time, and an eerie recording of her children singing the Lizzie Borden nursery rhyme opens the show.
Both performers have powerhouse voices that will literally blow your hair back, but Smith’s Irish accent was a nice touch. Davis has no qualms playing various factions off each other, which includes driving any small wedge she can between Emma and Lizzie. It is not that she’s devious, just more of an opportunist. Make sure to follow her eyes because what she sees and what she focuses on speak volumes.
Setzler’s Emma is an interesting character study. As an only child, I am baffled and fascinated by this whole sibling thing. People tell me I am missing out, but I really don’t understand it. Do you actually like each other? With Emma and Lizzie, I’m not sure if it is affection or a blood pact made against a common enemy. Emma is given two songs that illustrate the two sides of her relationship with Lizzie: “Sweet Little Sister,” which recounts their mother’s death and father’s remarriage, and the aptly titled, “What the Fuck Now, Lizzie?” The latter is a classic big-sister-to-little-sister demand of “What were you thinking? I told you what to do and you screwed up big time! Can’t you follow basic directions?” The pair of songs show off Setzler’s vocal abilities; she soars with the score. Her voice is at times sweet and melodic, like a musical theatre heroine, and at other times she knocks it out like a pure rock ‘n’ roll diva.
Simon and Setzler have incredible chemistry onstage: They ride waves of non-verbal communication that tell an entire lifetime of story. Don’t be fooled: This might be a sung-through musical, but director Anthony David Lawson and the cast ensure character development and a communication of subtext flesh out an entire story.
Into of this crazy house creeps the sweet next-door neighbor, Alice Russell (Meagan Golden). She is beautiful, kind and sadly besotted with Lizzie. She spins a beautiful fantasy life for them to escape into (“If You Knew,” “Maybe Someday”). Golden is the counterpoint to almost everyone else on stage. Her journey toward trust that ends in startling betrayal is heartbreaking to watch.
As these three women show us their ever-narrowing orbits, we come to really understand the magnitude of the story that is at the center of Lizzie Borden’s life. Audiences who haven’t heard Georgie Simon sing must go immediately to see this show. She has a voice that needs a bigger stage than we have in Wilmington. As well, she has a natural gift for acting and storytelling. The horrifying nightmare Lizzie descends into and eventually revels in comes to life with nuance; Simon makes it frighteningly believable.
Music director J. Robert Raines has assembled a band that quite literally rocks your face off; Justin Lacy, Benjamin Baldwin, Linda Carlisle Markas and Eli Stafford are a musical force. Actually, this show sounded the best of any show I can remember in that space. The balance between the music and the vocals was perfect. In short, sound designer Zachary Atkinson nailed it.
The show doesn’t lack visual fulfillment either. Stephanie Aman’s costume designs are a fascinating blend of Victorian Era and glam rock (also known as some of the more embarrassing memories of my adolescence, but I digress). Fishnets and corsets prove razzle dazzle, but Lizzie has an old dress that has been worn too long because her penny-pinching father won’t buy her a new one. In Act Two her drab old rag is replaced with an unforgettable ensemble. The details Aman has included are marvelous and all there for a reason.
There are a still a few bugs, though. The new lighting system has incredible capabilities, but on opening night lighting designer Hannah Funderburke was still trying to sort out some intricacies. The most noticeable struggle was when Simon went into the audience for one of her solos and the spotlight went the other way. The cast found themselves in and out of darkness several times in Act Two, too. Something wasn’t matching up with the performers’ marks and lights, which distracted from performances that deserved the audience’s full attention. It can take a little while with a new system to find all the bugs and little quirks. Funderburke is a pro, so I am sure she has sorted it out.
“Lizzie: The Musical” is Anthony David Lawson’s farewell show to Wilmington. He picked a pretty great exit. It seems fitting his farewell signals a new beginning with the next phase of North Front Theatre—a beautiful gift to a community that has enjoyed his work for so long. For two decades Wilmington audiences have been entertained by Lawson’s work on and off stage. Many remember him from early Shakespeare work (“The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet”) and from “Tommy,” “The Full Monty,” “Reefer Madness,” and “Santaland Diaries.” He has directed “Rock of Ages,” “Heathers” and “American Idiot,” among others. Anthony can conceive and write or adapt almost anything to the stage (“Diaries of Adam and Eve,” “The Bard’s Broads” series). He will leave a unique and hard-to-fill hole in Wilmington theatre scene.
Thank you, Anthony. Thank you, “Lizzie” cast and crew.
Lizzie: The Musical
March 5-7, 7:30 p.m. Matinees at 3 p.m. on March 8
North Front Street Theatre, 21 N. Front St. Fifth Floor
$23-$25 • panachetheatre.com