40 whacks and a bad attitude

Center Stage's Lizzie Borden musical chops a rock 'n' roll path into the American legend of family and violence

Turns out, it wasn’t 40 whacks.

Abby Durfree Gray Borden, Lizzie’s stepmother, took 19 blows to the back of her head on that fateful August day in 1892. Andrew Jackson Borden, Lizzie’s father, was dispatched with an efficient 11.

So much for legend.

As most schoolkids know, Lizzie, the most famous daughter or son of the mill town of Fall River, Massachusetts (sorry, George Stephanopoulos and Emeril Lagasse), was acquitted of the double ax murders. It took the jury just an hour and a half of deliberation to set her free, and no one else was ever charged.

Mary Kate Morrissey (left) as Lizzie, Kacie Sheik as Alice. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Mary Kate Morrissey (left) as Lizzie, Kacie Sheik as Alice. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Still, almost everyone thinks she dunnit. What most of us know about Lizzie Borden is neatly summed up in that famous, wryly understated doggerel, which neatly catapults her into the rarefied ranks of American folklore:

 Lizzie Borden took an ax

And gave her mother 40 whacks.

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father 41.

Lizzie, the new Broadway-hopeful musical at Portland Center Stage, bops along somewhere between folklore and fact. An unrepentant rock musical that mimics the overblown expressive style of arena rock, it revels in its own inventions (or at least, unprovable assertions): Lizzie’s dad repeatedly molested her; Lizzie and her neighbor, Alice Russell, were lovers.

But it also hews to historical fact. Lizzie and her older sister Emma didn’t get along with their stepmother. Their father did rewrite his will to pass his considerable inheritance to his second wife rather than his daughters if he died first. (In fact, he had already given considerable property to Abby’s family.) Lizzie did attempt to buy poison shortly before the murders, and she did burn one of her dresses, possibly bloodstained, after the fact. Lizzie was angry because her dad decapitated some pigeons she considered pets. (In the show, the little avian carcasses get accusingly waved about.) And because Abby met her maker before Andrew, Lizzie and Emma did, indeed, according to the stipulations of the will, inherit the estate.

But in a way, historical accuracy is beside the point – and impossible, after all, for a show that plops late-Victorian characters onto an early-punk stage, with amped-up microphones and a hard-cranking rock band in the background. Watching Lizzie made me think of Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert documentary, and not just because the movie opens with the song Psycho Killer. I kept looking for a consistent point of view, both musically and stylistically, and eventually gave up and just let the thing wash over me: the show’s about sensation, not sense. Is Lizzie a comedy, a tall tale, a feminist/lesbian manifesto, a concert, a docudrama, an evocation of American violence (I saw it on the evening of the day of yet another seemingly senseless campus massacre, this one at Seattle Pacific University)? Yes no maybe who knows.

Carrie Cimma as the maid Bridget. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Carrie Cimma as the maid Bridget. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Mostly sung through, with very little dialogue, Lizzie is more like a staged theme album (think Pink Floyd) than a full-blown piece of musical theater. Daniel Meeker’s arena-style scenic and lighting design, along with Jeff Cone’s amusingly garish punked-up period costumes, emphasize that, as does Rose Riordan’s juiced-up, in-your-face direction. Guys and Dolls, or even Hair or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, this ain’t. And its out-front pop-rock nature is going to divide audiences, I suspect, as much as it has critics. Holly Johnson, writing for The Oregonian, loved it. Patrick Brassell of Broadway World called it “a bloody mess.” Their attitudes reflect a similar split among people I know whose opinions I respect: some adore it, some hate it.

I find myself somewhere in the middle. I’m not generally a fan of sung-through musicals or rock musicals, because I don’t think those approaches usually let a story build or allow for much emotional subtlety or musical/narrative variation: they don’t let a story breathe. And the music by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt (with additions by Tim Maner) strikes me as a professionally efficient hodgepodge of clever borrowings. I’d love to have seen more wit in this play, because whatever else is going on in the confused tale of Lizzie Borden, it’s dripping with repression and absurdity.

On the other hand, Lizzie fits into a long history of presentational story song-cycles (you could argue it goes back at least to Henry Purcell’s proto-operatic masques), and all four performances are quite terrific. If part of the joy of rock ’n’ roll is watching musicians work their butts off, Lizzie is a pleasure machine. Mary Kate Morrissey, all twitchy and fractured and borderline loony in her approach, is a spring-loaded hatchet as Lizzie. Carrie Cimma is caustic and knowing and the closest thing to genuinely funny as the none-too-respectful maid, Bridget (based on a real character); Kacie Sheik is sweet/innocent/seductive/accusatory as neighbor Alice; and Leslie McDonel is a careful seesaw as Emma, alternately holding Lizzie back and egging her on. All four can sing the stuffings out a rock anthem. And there’s something to be said – so I’ll say it – in favor of the sheer comic Grand Guignol of an oversized ax spewing fake blood all over a stage.

On a scale of 40 whacks, I give Lizzie 25. That’s less than legend, and more than mere fact.


Lizzie continues on the main stage of Portland Center Stage through June 29. Ticket and schedule information is here.







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