Music has a mesmeric, perhaps demonic, power in Lizzie, the half-musical, half-rock concert at the Greenwich Theatre.
Lizzie tells the story of 19th-century alleged axe murderer Lizzie Borden, who infamously “gave her mother forty whacks” (“and gave her father forty-one”), according to the nursery rhyme.
There are fleeting moments of spoken dialogue in which the women who populate this play sound recognizably human, even amiable. But the moment the beat kicks in, each singer becomes a girl possessed, dangerous as the edge of a blade; each voice feeding the blazing fury which leads to Lizzie’s fatal actions.
The driving forces behind Lizzie are those four explosive voices on display and the women who wield them – Bjørg Gamst, Jodie Jacobs, Eden Espinosa, Bleu Woodward. It’s particularly a treat to see Espinosa, part of the first wave of Broadway pop/rock belters, as Lizzie’s sister Emma, who spurs Lizzie on to kill their abusive father and stepmother.
Espinosa is best known as the standby and first replacement for Idina Menzel in the original New York company of Wicked; she later headlined another Broadway show, the short-lived Brooklyn. Thousands of miles away, and over a decade later, it’s thrilling to hear that Espinosa still boasts a supernova voice; and her high, focused belt is as strong as ever in this hypnotically intense role.
And while her co-stars may be less well-known, they each match her vocal ferocity and dark fervour throughout. In the title role, Gamst, who has been playing the part on-and-off for almost a decade (this is the show’s UK premiere, but it has had a lengthy European and US touring history), transitions devilishly from tortured fragility to full-on derangement. She’s especially eerie as she pores over a book of poisons, and sings thrillingly.
Woodward offers up a lush pop vibrato, and the production’s only glimpses of true innocence, as the Bordens’ neighbour Alice Russell, but even Alice’s words are infected by the blood in the air: “Will you bite through the skin to the sweet flesh within?” she sings tenderly to Lizzie, her would-be lover.
But the most creepily delightful performance may be Jacobs’. Jacobs plays the smirking, lurking maid Bridget Sullivan with a gleefulness that sets the grimly ironic tone of the show. Watching Jacobs have far too much fun during a head-banging number about the decapitation of Lizzie’s birds is a highlight.
Lizzie is far from faultless. The rock concert format often means that the audience keeps a few minutes ahead of the songs – once a number gets started, it’s pretty clear where it’s going and what it’s going to sound like getting there. The writers spend more time than they need to on supplying Lizzie with a sympathetic set of motives for the double murder, given that the second act will seem to suggest that Lizzie might just mainly be insane. And the anti-climactic end to the historical story is a more tepid close to this adaptation than the high energy of the show’s first ninety minutes should warrant.
But Alan Stevens Hewitt, Steven Cheslik-Demeyer, and Tim Maner, who have combined forces on music and lyrics (with Maner alone providing the book) seem more interested in creating an ambiance of extreme rage and desire than in neatly ordered storytelling – in that regard, they succeed wholly. The trio’s moody, pulsating score may not be particularly innovative, but it’s evocative and clever, especially in a second-act song composed in 7/4 meter in which Lizzie’s lies spin out of control both musically and lyrically.
Victoria Bussert’s sly, sexy staging, paired with Greg Daniels’ choreography, and Martin Jensen’s in-your-face lighting design conveys the laser-beam precision that the show’s structure sometimes lacks. A six-piece band, under the musical direction of Martin Bergmann Konge, provides the spotless, throbbing accompaniment.
Audience members in the front row may be supplied with plastic ponchos to protect from splattering guts, but it’s the crackling energy spilling out of the instruments, both the singers’ and the band’s, that will make the biggest splash.
Lizzie is playing at the Greenwich Theatre until 12 March. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photo by SØREN MALMOSE