Review: Lizzie: the musical by Doctuh Mistuh Productions
by Michael Meigs
We're fortunate that Michael McKelvey, formerly at St. Ed's a couple of iterations ago, likes to drop back into Austin. Addressing the audience before Lizzie tore loose, he declared "We like to operate like rock concerts."He encouraged us to buy some Lizzie "merch"—logo shirts that come either as regular t's or as tank tops perhaps better suited for these hot times in Austin.
And hot times they are at Lizzie. Austin Playhouse's theatre space in west campus is cool enough, but the six women and four musicians burn incandescent. Under McKelvey's adroit direction, the show delivers lots of surprises.
It's based on the 1892 slaughters that brought Lizzie Borden into court, accused of chopping her parents to death. A brief black-and-white video intro features a couple of kids singing the folklore chant Lizzie Borden took an ax,/Gave her mother forty whacks;/When she saw what she had done,/She gave her father forty-one. That tale is the basis for this rock opera. There's probably little actual history in this production; for example our stage Lizzie, the strikingly vulnerable looking Stella Frye-Ginsberg, yearns to escape from the hell created for her by her sexually abusive father and her avaricious, neglectful stepmother. The story arc details that hell, the offstage murders end Act I, and the second act is devoted to Lizzie's efforts to construct an alternate explanation of the slaughters. She does go free and exults in being free to go. The historical Lizzie never left Falls River, Massachusetts, her stifling home town. Generally shunned, she died there thirty-five years later at the age of sixty-six.
But history is largely irrelevant. Lizzie is "her-story," the tale of a victim both of the callously exploitative pair who held her trapped and of the social mores of the time. The opera -- and it is an opera, full of passion and intense drama -- is performed by a cast of six women. Males are conspicuously absent. There's no patriarchic trial scene for the climactic moment of acquittal; the women report that a jury of white-haired old men found our heroine not guilty, and there's no account of those deliberations.
Director McKelvey pairs big-eyed, tender Frye-Ginsberg, who's about to leave Austin to start a university BFA program, with theatre veteran Leslie Holllingsworth with an impressive list of musical theatre leading roles. The match is perfect. There's something of a physical resemblance, and both are power singers conquering the complexities of this surging score. Hollingsworth and Frye-Ginsberg have presence and focus; they sing, wail, sizzle, roar, and—in the particularly memorable "Watchmen for the Morning"—join in enchanting, clear harmony for a hymn echoing Psalm 130.
All performers have flawless diction. Amplified via unapologetically evident mics, they sail effortlessly above pulsing music of the band led by Ellie Jarrett Shattles.
Secondary roles are anything but secondary. Libby Detling as Bridget the maid and sometime narrator has fine comic timing; Maryanna Tollemache as Lizzie's friend and lover makes their affair inevitable and sweet until her character is finally obliged to struggle between loyalty and truthful testimony.
Glenda Wolfe's luxuriant costuming is an ongoing revelation. At the start, all women are securely buttoned down and hidden in oppressive 19th-century dress. DId Wolfe also create those impressively intricate, distinctive, and elaborate hair designs? As the story pushes forward, watch those costumes and hair designs evolve in startling fashion from 1892 to the twenty-first century.
After the finale, a friend commented, "Wow—I sure wasn't expecting AC/DC!"
Lizzie is a blast, in both senses of the word. This roaring, soaring sister act plays for two more weekends at the west campus venue used by Austin Playhouse. Don't miss it; you'll be hearing about it afterward if you do.
405 W. 22nd Street
Austin, TX, 78705
July 14-30, 2023
Austin Playhouse, 405 W. 22nd Street, Austin, TX
Tickets $34.60 general admission, $24 students, service fee included; Thursdays pay-what-you-can (minimum $24)