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Lizzie Borden: The Musical logo
Andrea C. Ross, Dale Place, and Jayne Paterson
in Lizzie Borden: The Musical
(Photo © Emily Sweet)
"Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks..." That old playground singsong, however gory, would seem to have lost its power to send a chill up adult spines; we've since seen a lot worse in recent decades. It was, in fact, the O.J. Simpson trial that inspired writer-composer Christopher McGovern to examine another "crime of the century" -- the 19 century, that is.

After two full-scale productions at the American Stage Company in New Jersey in 1998 and Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut in 2001, Lizzie Borden has resurfaced at the Stoneham Theatre north of Boston, where it is enjoying optimal treatment. You could pluck this show up in its entirety, airlift it to Broadway, and no one would be the wiser -- though richer, definitely, because this is a fully realized musical drama with well-developed characters, a cleverly constructed plot (even if we already know the outcome), and an impressive array of mood-swinging songs. Amy Powers (Sunset Boulevard and, more recently, The Game, an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, still in development) gets co-credit for the lapidary and often very funny lyrics.

In reconstructing the infamous 1892 double parricide, McGovern cleaves pretty close to the known facts, adding just one key refraction of a character: Lizzie's damaged "inner child," here played with heartbreaking clarity by Andrea C. Ross. Into his beautifully layered script, McGovern enfolds allusions to the 32-year-old spinster's known character flaws, from sticky fingers to rabid social-climbing aspirations. But then, Lizzie's home life was not exactly paradise, given her penny-pinching boor of a stepmother and her super-rich but miserly father, who -- the script boldly posits -- may have taken more than a paternal interest in his youngest daughter.

Such is Jayne Paterson's skill in portraying this tightly coiled creature that we feel for her almost immediately. From the outset, Paterson (last seen as Fantine in the final cast of Les Miserables on Broadway) adopts the stance of a prisoner, clenched hands thrust downward as if awaiting cuffs. And oh, the strictures of the costumes of the era! While designer Rachel Padula Shufelt's outfits for the other ladies are flouncy and silken, Lizzie herself is bound in a shadowy brocade that hints at her dark inner life. Craig Siebel's versatile set -- frosted glass panels framed in Victorian filigree -- also incorporates hints of a prison or, at least, a far-from-gilded cage.

The opening song, "Even for August" -- one of those chatty, pro forma street-scene-setters found in works as diverse as Carmen and Oliver! -- soon leaps its apparent bonds and becomes an exercise in foreshadowing as an insistent, strange rhythm hints at horrors ahead. The events of the fateful day rapidly unfold, interspersed with trial testimony (the witnesses are dramatically uplit in keeping with the theatrical convention of the day) and flashbacks to Lizzie's tormented childhood, often co-acted by Ross and Paterson as two facets of a fractured personality. Have no fear of trite, movie-of-the-week clichés about child abuse: The song "I Cry Alone," sung by both Lizzies, cuts right to the heart of innocence betrayed and bares the scars that result.

The performances among the cast of 14 are never less than competent and some are outstanding, such as Sara Inbar as the Irish servant Bridget, whom Lizzie generically calls Maggie. "The Maggie Work," a litany of scutwork embellished with a crescendo of curse words -- some cut short, but all accompanied by an elided sign of the cross -- is a comic gem, yet even it is outshone by the sextet "Another Dinner." Let's just say that this household knows how to stretch its food budget; soon there won't be so many mouths to feed.

McGovern's debt to Sondheim is implicit: It's hard to envision such a tragicomic, chiaroscuro treat but for the precedent of Sweeney Todd. What's remarkable about Lizzie Borden: The Musical is that, in lieu of ironic distance, the composer allows himself a full measure of empathy with the title character. Not for a moment do we imagine that Lizzie is not one of our own.

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