If you know only one thing about Lizzie Borden, it’s probably that she killed her parents with an ax. After all, that’s what the popular children’s rhyme says. Borden was actually acquitted of the 1892 ax murders of her father and stepmother, but the case continues to fascinate and attract speculation more than a century later.
Now it’s even a rock musical. “Lizzie” started out as a four-song theater/rock concert piece written by Tim Maner with songs by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, and later expanded into a full musical with more music and orchestrations by newly added collaborator Alan Stevens Hewitt. San Francisco’s Ray of Light Theatre brought it to the Bay Area two years ago, and now San Jose’s City Lights Theater Company takes a whack at it for its South Bay debut.
We never actually meet the doomed parents in “Lizzie,” though Ron Gasparinetti’s fascinatingly fragmented set at City Lights (dominated by cubelike chunks of dark wallpapered walls) is bracketed by huge oval screens usually occupied by cameo portraits of the Bordens in Nick Kumamoto’s subtly shifting video design.
We see and hear everything through four young women. One, of course, is Lizzie herself, played by Hayley Lovgren in an agitated frenzy of fear and disgust about whatever it is her father does with her. “This is not love,” she sings in a desperate, disturbing lament. “I don’t know what it is.” It’s only after the murders that Lizzie begins to come alive, transformed as if a great weight had been lifted off of her.
We also meet her older sister, Emma, nearly always fuming with rage in Amy Soriano-Palagi’s fierce portrayal. Emma particularly hates their stepmother, whom she says is scheming to cut them out of their father’s will.
Neighbor Alice watches the odd goings-on next door keenly, not least because she has secret feelings of her own, which Sharon Lita conveys as with aching longing whenever her restrained Alice is alone with Lizzie.
Most amusing of all is Chloe Angst’s half-crazed, half-sardonic observer’s perspective as the household maid Bridget, called Maggie by the family because that was the previous maid’s name and they can’t be bothered to learn hers.
The show is extremely intense from the very beginning in executive artistic director Lisa Mallette’s staging, and it doesn’t let up. Deftly played by an onstage rock band led by music director Katie Coleman and engagingly belted out by the cast, the songs are bewitchingly catchy, ranging from tender ballads to screaming headbangers (occasionally with some actual headbanging in Christine Herrera’s understated choreography).
One of the most devilishly spellbinding ditties is “Shattercane and Velvet Grass,” Bridget and Lizzie’s macabre duet about teas and poisons, but the show is packed with memorable numbers. “Why Are All These Heads Off,” sung in the aftermath of a different bloody deed, is a screaming haymaker of a song.
All this unrestrained singing their guts out is all the more stunning coming from four women primly garbed in simple Victorian dresses by costume designers Pat Tyler and Melissa Sanchez, though they let their hair down strikingly in the second act.
The show doesn’t play up the mystery of the murders. There’s no question of who dunnit in this particular version, but it makes a pretty good case as to why they dunnit. Through it all runs a perversely intoxicating air of defiance, as if we’re all co-conspirators here, or at least accessories to the crime. This is one killer musical, and the City Lights cast totally slays it.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at email@example.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt, presented by City Lights Theater Company
Through: Aug. 20
Where: City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $19-$44; 408-295-4200, www.cltc.org
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