Forty Whacks: notes on Lizzie (the Musical)

The story of Lizzie Borden, a young American woman who in 1892 infamously slew her father and step-mother, lends itself generously to the steampunk Burton-esque aesthetic of Lizzie (the Musical).

You’ve got your murderous spunky daughter belting anthems of being a girlboss with an ax, an even spunkier Irish servant rocking teased out hair and the eye liner of our turn-of-the-2010s youth, all backed by a band of mostly girls on guitar, bass, and drums, who share the stage with the actors. It’s got many moving parts that serve its whole.

Directed by Nadia Verucci who was most recently on Centaur Theatre’s stage in At The Beginning of Time, every choice and every voice in this show is dripping in the playful darkness of the feminine gaze. The first thing you hear sung out by the ensemble of four is the creepy little rhyme that has immortalized and reduced Lizzie’s story:

Lizzie Borden took an ax / Gave her mother forty whacks

When he saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one

The rock opera that follows is all speculative historical fiction — a literary genre I am partial to — about what might have motivated this familial violence. 

Lizzie, played very stoically, never campy by Erin Carter, bemoans her awful mistreatment by her father, and she and her elder sister, Emma, played by producer, musician, and veteran of the stage Noelle Hannibal, sing together of their common struggle for security threatened by their step-mother making alterations to their father’s will.

All the unhappiness in the house of Borden is borne by Bridget, their maid, whose status below the Borden sisters makes her an unwilling accomplice and receiver of abuse in turns, and is given great voice by Skyler Clark. The fourth character is their neighbour, Alice Russell, played by Courtney Crawford, who comes to be an important witness during the trial scenes that incriminate Lizzie, and who shares a doomed romance with her. One hopes for a queer romance on stage in the heart of Montreal’s Gay Village at the start of the summer theatre season, and while the chemistry between them was tepid, we might chalk that up to the restriction of their corsets, the actresses channeling all passion and heart into their voices rather than their bodies.

Montreal is a great city for music and a fine city for theatre, enriched by its bisected linguistic worlds where both are made, and in some cases publicly funded and supported. We are not a big city for large-scale ambitious musical theatre, especially indie musical theatre. The creative limitations of small budgets, strange spaces, and limited resources can, however, be where creative risks and a rock-and-roll philosophy thrive.

Lizzie (the Musical) full cast photographed by Romantic Photographic

Théâtre La Comédie was the perfect venue for a show of this scale, the lighting and stage design more oriented to a rock show than theatrical performances. The band members were enlisted for occasional stagecraft, as when guitarist Emilie Coutu takes a step away from shredding to escort Miss Lizzie Borden to her “prison cell,” conveyed more by the use of their bodies than any superfluous set pieces.

I wish this same minimalist sensibility could have kept the production design from the over-reliance on a small projection screen centre-stage that threw up inconsistent photographs of the given settings (a 19th century photo of the crime scene jarringly contrasted with a full-colour daylit photo of an American courthouse that looked pulled right off of Google Maps) and most regrettably, the title and theme lines of almost every song sung projected behind the singers in a tawdry white cursive font on black. The audience trusts the performers, musical and theatrical, to sing and speak and move in ways that clue us to all that was hammered home on that little unnecessary screen.

In a town where musical theatre can’t (and shouldn’t) take itself too seriously, Lizzie (the Musical) came together by the grace of love and support from within and beyond its team, warmly received by audiences, and mounted at the most fitting venue.

Fans of this show will also love the WISTA production of Prom coming to the West Island later this summer. And see more of Skyler Clark’s range in Johnny Legdick: the Fabled Rock Opera running Off-Fringe at Cafe Cleopatra in early June.◼︎

Photos: Romantic Photographic.