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Review: Lizzie 

Concert meets theater at See ’Em On Stage’s ax murderer musical

click to enlarge lizzie_cr_garymichaelsmith.jpg

Photo by Gary Michael Smith

For those who revel in the sheer outrageousness of rock music, Lizzie, may be fulfilling fare, but if you're seeking well-developed characters enacting a thrilling and horrifying story, the See 'Em On Stage production of the murderous musical falls dramatically short.

  However well-intentioned, the creative choice of venue — the cavernous New Orleans Art Center — makes it almost impossible to follow the narrative. While lyrics are incidental to many rock songs, they are critical in a musical, and here the audience must strain to understand exactly what is happening. Despite the performers' hand-held and headset microphones, the band positioned onstage is too dominant and distracts from the action. Musicians performing on the same plane as the actors is a good example of an interesting idea that undermines the purpose of the show.

  The story of Lizzie Borden, a 19th-century Massachusetts woman who became notorious after being accused of axe-murdering her father and stepmother, is a well-known tale. Borden's motivation for her alleged killings, however, is not clearly understood and that is the secret this show might have revealed.

  On the positive side, all four female vocalists have tremendously powerful voices, which sustain the audience's attention. Sisters Lizzie (Leslie L. Claverie) and Emma (Idella Johnson) are particularly forceful. Claverie's rendition of "This Is Not Love," in which she discloses the sordid nature of the paternal relationship, is a high point of the show. Abbey P. Murrell is effective as the maniacal maid Bridget. Instrumentalists (including Travis Henthorn on drums, Steven Kennedy on guitar, Taylor Mroski on bass and Gary Washington on cello) provide rhythmic dynamism, even if their volume could have been turned down by a third. The raw space of the art center, which has visible pipes and ducts overhead, creates a bleak atmosphere. Pulsating lights lend the feeling of a rock concert. At times, one can get caught up in a kind of Victorian-girls-gone-wild aesthetic, particularly during the cleverly choreographed "Questions Questions."

  On the minus side, there is very little acting. It can be difficult to sing and act at the same time, but that is what must occur to engage the audience emotionally. Anyone who has experienced an effective Shakespeare play has seen how useful body language can be in conveying meaning when language is arcane. Purposeful movement using the entire stage and between characters would have helped greatly to create the necessary tension, leading to a climax.

  Lizzie inspires neither our sympathy nor revulsion, because we don't see or feel the hatred for her father. She and her friend Alice (Kali Russell) seem too nice to be associated with a heinous crime. Emma, however, projects real angst that mirrors the angry music she sings. Had all four actresses performed at Johnson's level of intensity, the brutality of the acts would have been more believable.

  On the level of pure musical entertainment, with musical direction by Ainsley Matich, Lizzie is successful as a concert, but falls short as real theater.

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