Jenny Fellner in Lizzie Borden
(© Carl Skutsch)
Jenny Fellner in Lizzie Borden
(© Carl Skutsch)
The name and reputation of Lizzie Borden is immortalized in the children's rhyme, "Lizzie Borden took an axe/gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/gave her father forty-one." That rhyme is set to a haunting, music box-like melody at the beginning of the bold new rock musical Lizzie Borden, by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt, now at The Living Theatre. The show attempts to provide a motivation for the 1892 double homicide -- of which the young Lizzie was acquitted -- and while not everything works, a strong score and powerhouse vocal performances inject the piece with a dynamic, infectious energy that glosses over some of the piece's flaws.

Like the Broadway musical Spring Awakening -- which seems like a direct influence on this production -- period elements are mixed with postmodern, contemporary components. The song's lyrics contain both slang and profanity, while the music veers into punk with occasional detours into a more folksy sound and even one number beautifully sung as a psalm ("Watchmen For the Morning").

Maner, who also directed, stages the show presentationally, with his four actresses often standing behind microphones to deliver both lines and songs. Occasionally, they'll participate in more book-driven scenes, but these moments are the least successful, as the character relationships are only sketched in and the performers tend to indicate their motivations in too broad a fashion.

Jenny Fellner starts out by playing Lizzie as a shy, emotionally fragile woman whom the script makes clear is sexually abused by her father. But she steadily undergoes a fierce transformation, leading into the positively electrifying first act finale, "Somebody Will Do Something," in which the murders are committed. Marie-France Arcilla, who plays Alice Russell, is given the show's best song, the ballad "Will You Stay?" and interprets it beautifully. Alice sings the number to Lizzie as a song of longing and seduction; their relationship is the most developed in the musical, but the lesbian love story still needs to be fleshed out further in order to be fully effective.

Carrie Cimma has a strong, and delightfully quirky presence as the Borden's maid, Bridget, and her performance of "Shattercane and Velvet Grass," sung with Fellner's Lizzie, is another of the show's high points. Lisa Birnbaum, as Lizzie's older sister Emma, is quite stilted in the majority of her book scenes, but lets loose in her musical numbers, particularly "Sweet Little Sister" and "Emma's Return."

Bobby Frederick Tilley II has done a fantastic job on the costume design, starting off Alice and Lizzie in period clothing, while Emma and Bridget have a more modern look. Following the murders, Lizzie dons a sleek black dress that helps to visually reinforce the character's transformation. On the downside, Jamie McElhinney hasn't yet found the right balance in his sound design between band and cast members, with the lyrics sometimes being drowned out. This is particularly unfortunate, as they contain a lot of exposition. Still, the overall arc of the story remains clear.