Review: Doctuh Mistuh’s Lizzie: The Musical

America’s most infamous axe murderer gets a riot grrrl makeover

(l to r) Madi Sipe, Maryanna Tollemache as Alice Russell, Stella Frye-Ginsberg as Lizzie Borden, Leslie Hollingsworth as Emma Borden, Libby Detling as Bridget Sullivan, and Jess Workman in Doctuh Mistuh’s production of Lizzie: The Musical (Image courtesy of Doctuh Mistuh)

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

The facts of the case are plain. On Aug. 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally murdered in their home in Fall River, Mass. The only person ever brought to trial was Andrew’s youngest daughter, Lizzie, who was acquitted by the jury but never cleared in the eyes of the general public. The unsolved crime became a cause célèbre in the newly-minted tabloids, and then a vessel into which pop culture could pour its contemporary obsessions. And, almost inevitably, it became a musical: Lizzie: The Musical.

Doctuh Mistuh’s mission is to resurrect overlooked works, especially those with a comedic or satirical twist such as 2014’s The Silence of the Lambs spoof Silence! The Musical and their 2015 saucy swing at Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical. Working with the Haymaker Players, Lizzie is their first Austin production since 2018’s Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. In the interim, there have been productions with their partner company in New Orleans, the Storyville Collective, as well as shows in Durango, Colo. – the latter being local for DM founder Michael McKelvey, who is currently an assistant professor of musical theatre at Fort Lewis College.

Lizzie is less liberated and more manipulated, with both Emma and Maggie taking turns to push her hands closer to the axe.
With that central mission in mind, Lizzie is an ideal return to the Austin stage for Doctuh Mistuh: It’s been the subject of dozens of stagings and revivals globally since its earliest iteration in 1990 as an experimental theatre piece. The current version is arguably a contradiction: a riot grrrl-tinged tale of smashing the patriarchy, albeit one written by three men (music by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt, lyrics by Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner, and a book by Maner).

However, onstage at Austin Playhouse (unless you look deep into the gloom at the back of the stage to spot the rock quartet of music director Ellie Shattles, bassist Brad Shelton, guitarist Ryan Beavers, and drummer Trevor Detling in the shadows), there are only women visible: Stella Frye-Ginsberg as the terrified and oppressed Lizzie Borden; Leslie Hollingsworth as her more liberated sister, Emma Borden; Libby Detling as the sarcastic house servant, Bridget Sullivan (dismissively nicknamed Maggie by the sisters, after their last maid); and Maryanna Tollemache as Lizzie's only friend, Alice Russell, burning and blushing with an unrequited love for her neighbor.

With the assistance of Madi Sipe and Jess Workman (serving as chorus, understudies, and, through some ingenious stagecraft by McKelvey, the assorted residents of Fall River), they present the defense of Lizzie. Ignore her claims in opening ensemble number "The House of Borden" – Lizzie definitely did the deed. So what we get here are the extenuating circumstances, nay righteous justification.

In many ways, the narrative is akin to that of Lizzie, the 2018 cinematic take on the murders. The film undoubtedly borrows from the version of the story popularized in the musical: Lizzie commits justifiable homicide, Andrew's an abusive monster, and again there’s a lesbian relationship, between Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) and Bridget (Kristen Stewart).

Each generation rewrites Lizzie Borden for its own, and Lizzie’s Lizzie was forged in the inevitable giddiness that ensues from her liberation (it was also first performed during the era of constant comments about Lorena Bobbitt and her own blade-wielding vengeance). Yet here Lizzie Borden becomes infantilized, physically weak, and without resources, none of which was reflected in reality (she was actually 32 at the time of the slayings, clearly capable of swinging that axe, and she and Emma had just made a comfortable fortune from selling a property to their father). The root of the actual crime is likely far less to do with political and sexual awakening and more to do with inheritances and murder for money. If Stephen Sondheim had decided to take on Victorian crime again after Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (recently staged by Austin Opera), then what happened in Fall River would be blood relative to Todd’s contentions about the vermin of the world.

In this case, it’s the unseen Andrew and Abby (who even the musical agrees were murdered horrendously) who are said vermin – which doesn't really seem fair. Meanwhile, Lizzie is less liberated and more manipulated, with both Emma and Maggie taking turns to push her hands closer to the axe.

Frye-Ginsberg finds her Lizzie somewhere between the Gothic mordancy of Wednesday Addams and the collapsing psyche of Ophelia, especially in the crystalizing logic of poisoner’s serenade “Shattercane & Velvet Grass.”
With such an ahistorical and thematically uneven story, it’s up to the cast and the songs to give some degree of cohesion, which fortunately this production more than achieves. Frye-Ginsberg finds her Lizzie somewhere between the Gothic mordancy of Wednesday Addams and the collapsing psyche of Ophelia, especially in the crystalizing logic of poisoner’s serenade “Shattercane & Velvet Grass.” She gives a tortured richness to the part, playing especially well off of the sardonic side-eye of Bridget. Detling is given much of the comedy heavy lifting of act one, playing for broad, almost pantomime dame laughs, but intriguingly hands the role of humorous foil off to Emma in act two. By contrast, Hollingsworth finds laughs in awkward glances and in the Curb Your Enthusiasm panic of “What the F**k Now, Lizzie?!”

Equally, as Alice, Tollemache is the counterbalance to Lizzie’s increasingly erratic behavior, her yearning in “If You Knew” palpable.

Yet the ensemble is always having to navigate the flaws and pitfall in the script, especially the rushed emotional beats of the trial in “Questions Questions” when so many relationships fall apart. That unevenness is not helped by the switch at the intermission from the delicious Victoriana of costume designer Glenda Wolfe's initial designs to burlesque-esque lingerie, and then to too-on-the-nose hair metal leathers for the closing “Into Your Wildest Dreams.”

But while this new staging can’t avoid the stumbling blocks inherent to the book (and arguably adds a few of its own), the sheer gusto of the performances, and the surprising complexity of some of the songs, give Doctuh Mistuh's Lizzie the edge it needs.

Doctuh Mistuh's Lizzie: The Musical

Austin Playhouse, 405 W. 22nd
Through July 30
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.

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