Authors: Tim Maner,book; Steven Cheslik-deMeyer & Maner,lyrics; Alan Stevens Hewitt & Cheslik-deMeyer, music.
At: Firebrand Theatre at The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: FirebrandTheatre.org; $45. Runs through: Dec. 17
The debut production of a new company often is called a "calling card," allowing public response to determine if the troupe should be invited to stick around. Based on this Chicago premiere of Lizzie, Firebrand Theatre can stay as long as it wishes and has earned a seat at the table.
Firebrand is a musical theatre company committed to employing and empowering women. Rather than reinventing the wheel, founding artistic director Harmony France very wisely assembled a team of nationally experienced veterans for Lizzie, among them long-missed director Victoria Bussert, music director Andra Velis Simon, movement advisor Janet Louer and sound designer Victoria Deiorio. Lizzie serves the Firebrand mission perfectly, too, although the authors are men. Firebrand marks itself, thereby, as being pro-female rather than anti-male, which also seems wise.
Lizzie is a rock opera about infamous axe-murder suspect Lizzie Borden ( Liz Childester ), acquitted in 1893 of chopping her father and stepmother. The carefully researched book and lyrics stick close to known facts but also incorporate speculations, some put forward years after the events. Fact: Papa Andrew Borden was a rich tightwad who signed over much of his property to step-mother Abby Borden. Fact: Lizzie and her older sister Emma ( Camille Robinson ) resented their stepmother. Speculation: Papa sexually molested Lizzie ( 32 at the time of the murders ). Speculation: Lizzie had a lesbian affair with her next-door neighbor, Alice Russell ( Jacquelyne Jones ).
The only characters are Lizzie, Emma, Alice and Irish housemaid Bridget Sullivan ( Leah Davis ), who purportedly said on her deathbed that she lied to protect Lizzie. Indeed, Bridget and Emma appear complicit in ... whatever happened. The four singers combine bright personalities with insightful interpretation, while Bussert's staging suggests the intense female friendships of the 19th century, tinged with eroticism. Childester and Jones are alluring as well.
The energetic score follows a tight pattern of up-tempo numbers separated by an equal number of slower, quieter songs. The lyrics are clearly-worded and clearly-delivered, helped by Deiorrio's beautifully balanced sound design. The melodic music and orchestrations offer keyboards and a rich cello part against bass and drums in an all-female rock quartet with neither lead nor rhythm guitars.
Lizzie is odd in some ways. Act I leads to the murders that are graphically but not literally portrayed, with the women wearing spot-on late 19th-century clothing, even down to undergarments ( Charlotte Yetmann's costumes ). Then, in Act II, they all are in black goth outfits and four-letter words creep into the lyrics. I don't understand why. The short second act ( 30 minutes ) dissipates the tension of Act I because it introduces little that's new, although the semi-abstract staging of one number, "Burn Your Thing," is charismatic.
Please, Firebrand, call again soon.