Connections » Profiles

Lizzie

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jul 24, 2017
Lizzie

Here are the brass tacks: "Lizzie" at San Jose's City Lights is a four-woman rock opera about accused 19th-century ax murderer Lizzie Borden, who more than likely chopped her father and stepmother to death one fine Massachusetts day 125 years ago.

Back then Lizzie only got a nursery rhyme by way of pop culture recognition. Now it's a full-on musical, with her name right on the front of the program. Who says social mobility is dead?

This musical cuts out any ambiguity about whether she really did it and just assumes that Lizzie was guilty as hell, then entertains potentially entertaining reasons for it.

Was it the pressures of a taboo romance? Revenge after years of abuse? Perils of the family will? Was it all because of the birds in the end? Or maybe it was like a lightning strike: bound to happen sooner or later, whoever was in the way.

Hayley Lovgren (who was just in the "Silence of the Lambs" musical at the Victoria Theater, so anyone laboring away on a musical adaptation of "Zodiac" knows who to call when it's done...) is Lizzie, belting out high and long notes and appraising everything with dramatic eyebrow arches.

Life in the house of the wealthy but strangely downtrodden Borden family isn't going well for her, trapped under the thumb of her antagonistic stepmother and unyielding and abusive father.

In the unexpectedly solemn and compelling song "Wings of the White Bird," Lizzie hangs out in the pigeon coop and dreams that she might fly away from her problems. But the solution she pursues instead is decisively earthbound.

Borden sister Emma (Amy Soriano-Palagi, who lists Dorothy as one of her favorite parts but missed her true calling as the Wicked Witch of the West judging from this performance) wants her stepmom out of the picture -- literally, almost the entire set consists of picture frames -- but doesn't want her hands dirty.

Sharp-edged housemaid Bridget (Chloe Angst, lately in "The Secret Garden" at CCCT) seems to be spending her off hours practicing unsavory looks in a mirror and may or may not be in on the whole thing, depending on the time of day.

And then there's Lizzie's BFF Alice (Sharon Lita), who doesn't leave much to the imagination about what's on her mind with the smoldering love ballad "Will You Stay?"

All of the non-Lizzie roles are underwritten, and sticking to a cast of four boxes the show in. It's pretty easy to guess who's going get the next number based on who just left the stage. Meanwhile, we never so much as meet the elder Bordens.

Note that this project started as a short with a handful of songs 27 years ago, and building extra material onto such a simple skeleton holds it back.

A rock opera about historical ax murder, of course, seems naturally tongue in cheek, but "Lizzie" hits a surprisingly somber and revealing note early with songs like Lovgren's first big solo (and the song best suited to her voice) "This Is Not Love."

But then later everything gets cheeky anyway, like with the driving punk reveal "Somebody Will Do Something," which stops barely short of winking directly at the audience. "Lizzie" doesn't quite know what show it wants to be.

And yet, despite almost nothing quite adding up, director Lisa Mallette somehow turns this into a winning hand.

The songs by Tim Maner have a lot to do with that on their own, of course. Although selections like the opening ditty "House of Borden" expose the weakness of some of Maner's lyrics, the swirling fog of roadhouse blues, hard rock and punk funk from the live band sweeps the action up pretty fast.

More importantly, Mallette and the entire cast commit as much as they can to every part of "Lizzie." When the show asks for irony, they do it hard. When it asks for sober emotion, they do that hard too. These requests aren't always reasonable, but they don't seem to care.

That devotion to executing every scene, every song, every look, and every out of control hairstyle gels with the natural brashness of the music, not to mention our lurid cultural fascination with the history.

"Lizzie" is awkward and shorthanded and tugged in too many directions. But it's a hit anyway. Life's funny like that.

"Lizzie" plays through August 20 at City Lights, 529 S 2nd St., San Jose. For tickets and information, call 408-295-4200 or visit CLTC.org.

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