Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Lizzie
New Line Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green


Anna Skidis Vargas
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
One hundred and twenty-five years later, Lizzie Borden still fascinates. But if she "took an axe, and gave her father forty whacks (his second wife, likewise dispatched)"; or if the violent double murder was done by someone else (her stepmother's brother?), we may never know for sure.

The strict legalistic narrative on her Wikipedia page explains that Elizabeth Andrew Borden was ultimately acquitted for a variety of reasons (her biological mother died when Lizzie was only two). But that same page's "citation #42" strongly suggests a guilty verdict was probably due against her, as either a victim of childhood sexual abuse, or a borderline psychopath, or both. And both explanations are worked into this story, leading to the well-known conclusion in a stylish, engrossing two-act show.

Through director Mike Dowdy-Windsor's new staging of Lizzie at the Marcelle Theatre, the 1892 mystery gets a great rock-opera treatment—but one that's also drenched in psychological pathos—with a lot of fine visual and musical elements, and (more importantly) with New Line Theatre's trademark soaring singing harmonies, from four first-rate actresses.

The 2009 musical by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner comes down firmly but poetically on the side of childhood sexual abuse as an unseen (and exculpatory) cause, thanks to the haunting performance of Anna Skidis Vargas in the title role. Numbers like "This Is Not Love" quietly make the point about childhood sexual abuse, but also create a lonely, tragic figure out of this historical oddity. And she manages to be funny here and there, so the tone is lighter than you'd expect.

Lizzie was 32 when the double murder occurred, shortly after what may have been an attempted poisoning of her father and stepmother. But, in isolated Fall River, Massachusetts, she seems much younger when the story begins. In the musical, she commiserates with her elder sister Emma (Marcy Wiegert) about their tyrannical father and cold stepmother (and what's happening to their father's money). Emma eventually moves out, and her younger sister is left to find solace nurturing a flock of pigeons at their rural home. Then, in a psychotic break (illustrated with intense, flashing lights), she learns her father has killed all her birds.

But here Lizzie also gets a book on poisons from the family maid Bridgette/Maggie (Kimi Short). And neighbor Alice Russell (Larissa White) is comforting, in a suggested lesbian relationship with Lizzie, though that all changes after the murders. So each of the other characters (including the abandoning sister) provides an unstable relationship with Lizzie, adding to the drama.

It's very compelling in this intimate setting, with a six-person band and lots of colorful, smoky rays of light pouring down, helping fill out the rock-concert motif. And it all becomes a great moral cause for for the audience, as a psychologically wounded Lizzie takes justice into her own hands—in a pounding, exciting, and beautifully assembled musical production, with lots of surprisingly good rock anthems and ballads.

Lizzie, through October 21, 2017 at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com.

The Players:
Lizzie Borden: Anna Skidis Vargas
Bridget Sullivan: Kimi Short
Alice Russell: Larissa White
Emma Borden: Marcy Wiegert

The New Line Band:
Conductor/Piano: Sarah Nelson
Guitar: D. Mike Bauer
Bass: Jack Heberlie
Cello: Emily Trista Lane
Percussion: Clancy Newell
Keyboard/Guitar: Jake Stergos

The Artistic Staff:
Director: Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Music Director: Sarah Nelson
Stage Manager: Erin Goodenough
Scenic & Lighting Designer: Rob Lippert
Costume Designer: Sarah Porter
Sound Designer: Ryan Day
Props Master: Alison Helmer
Scenic Artists: Richard Brown, Nick Brunstein, Kate Wilkerson
Volunteer Coordinator: Alison Helmer
Graphic Designer: Matt Reedy


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