Almost a hundred years before the Menendez brothers’ infamous courtroom drama sent them to prison for killing their parents, another family’s brutal ending was coming to a head in Fall River, Massachusetts. In 1897 Lizzie Borden was accused of gruesomely taking a hatchet to her stepmother, Abby, 18 times before turning it 11 times to her father, Andrew, while he slept. Yet, a 12-man jury acquitted Lizzie; questionable evidence and eyewitness accounts, novice prosecutors, and poor police procedures ran aplenty in the case. It all made for headlines galore.
Ever since, the Victorian-era slaying has become fodder for literature, film, music and theatre productions. Come August “Lizzie: The Musical” will become an official Off-Broadway show. First, Wilmington’s very own Panache Theatrical Productions will be one of the last community theatre organizations to secure its rights.
Opening this weekend in Thalian’s Stein theater, “Lizzie: The Musical” is directed by Panache cofounder Anthony Lawson. Lawson has been fascinated by the Borden family’s story and immersed himself in research over the last year or so.
“Bryan Putnam was talking to me one day about this incredible show called ‘Lizzie,’ and I immediately went home and looked it up and went, ‘I have to do this! This is amazing!’” Lawson notes. “It’s told [in] the voices of four women belting their faces off—it is a rock show. It is a punk show. It is a clashing of the Victorian world with the punk-rock scene.”
Music director J. Robert Raines will play guitar alongside guitarist Justin Lacy, keyboardist Linda Markas, bassist Eli Stafford, and percussionist JJ Street. Raines is bringing audiences a visceral connection to the show via its hard-hitting score.
“Whether you want it or not, you end up rooting for Lizzie,” he claims. “The heavy metal forces you to share her anger, the beautiful, flowing, somber tones spread sorrow through the room, and the disjointed four-on-the-floor beats make you feel just a little bit off as Lizzie descends into madness.”
Georgie Simon will play the protagonist. The Borden family endured a lot of arguments leading up to the murders. Money and greed was at its core, though other ideas of sexual abuse and oppression, even Lizzie’s parents unwillingness to accept her as a lesbian, have come out as possible motives. For Simon, getting into Lizzie’s mindset has strengthened her character acting.
“The most surprising thing has been realizing how creepy I can be in this role,” she admits. “I’ve seen [Anthony] cringe at some of the scarier things I do. I consider myself a bit of a softie, but Lizzie has unleashed a new side of me.”
Driving the character arc is Lizzie’s transformation from helpless to taking back her power amidst an unhealthy household. The songs move with her new sense of freedom. “‘Thirteen Days in Taunton’ is the culmination of Lizzie’s liberation,” Simon adds, “so I always feel like I’m sprinting toward that scene through the show.”
Playing Bridget Sullivan, Lizzie’s maid, is Elisa Eklof Smith. Bridget is the watchdog of the Borden household, baring witness to all that is said and enacted. Smith calls her a survivor because she puts up with a lot but also sees the big picture. “She understands the end game,” Smith continues. “She’s very calculated and calm in the face of chaos!” Bridget becomes the motivator for Lizzie to murder. The number “Somebody Will Do Something” allows the audience to see the moment Lizzie decides to follow through with the crime. “Bridget is her accomplice and turns a blind eye,” Smith adds.
Alice Russell, played by Meagan Golden, plays the Bordens’ neighbor and friend. Despite the murderous suspicion surrounding Lizzie, she believes, no matter the horrendous outcome, Lizzie is still good. Also, she is in love with Lizzie.
“She has a strong sense of morals but is a hopeless romantic,” Golden reveals. “That love is strong enough at first but she is also conflicted to do what is right.”
Yet, Russell’s love is one-sided. Eventually, she realizes she is only as good as an alibi. When Russell witnesses Lizzie burning a dress (possibly the blood-stained garment Lizzie was wearing during the murders), she begins to question her obligation to doing what’s right. Lizzie tells Russell it’s just a paint-stained dress she no longer needed.
“‘Burn the Old Thing Up’ is a beautiful, eerie song that serves as a precursor to Lizzie’s important decisions,” according to Golden. “‘Questions Questions’ is one of the most difficult musical theatre songs I have ever sung. It does a good job of emulating a panic attack. It’s like every single part of the music directly correlates with what is happening in their minds. Even if you took the lyrics out, you would still get a good idea of what the characters are going through in that moment.”
Behind the scenes is costumer Stephanie Amann and set designer Benedict Fancy creating the Borden world. It is sparse, consisting of all black and a lot of lights. Lawson attributes it to more of a rock show than a traditional musical. “It features four strong women [Heather Setzler rounds out the cast as Emma Borden], relying on each other, clotting with each other, counting on each other, and blending to make an insane sound that no one in Wilmington has ever heard before,” Lawson promises.
“Lizzie: The Musical” opens May 23 and contains strong language and violence. Music and lyrics are by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt, with lyrics and book by Tim Maner.