Lizzie, an early 00s power punk-pop musical about Lizzie Borden—the turn-of-the-century axe murderer—has been ripped apart and put back together for the Sydney Festival. Dial down the history, turn up the lesbian rage.
“Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”
Sydney’s having a love affair with axe-murdering musicals. Noted Broadway flop American Psycho has sustained two successful runs here (in the famous Opera House no less), but can Lizzie tap into that same lust for theatrical blood?
Under the direction of Maeve Marsden, the creator of Australian LGBTQIA+ salon Queerstories, Borden’s tale is transplanted to colonial Australia and Marsden has assembled a predominantly female creative team to balance out the all-male writing (the show was created by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt).
Onstage a quartet of big voices bring these women to life, Marissa Saroca (Lizzie), Ali Calder (Lizzie’s sister, Emma), Stefanie Caccamo (Lizzie’s neighbour and lover, Alice) and Sarah Ward (the Borden’s maid, Bridget). Each is serving a different angle on the material, from Caccamo’s sweet innocence (I got strong Lea Michelle vibes from her performance), Calder’s Emma is stressed and increasingly unhinged (her best number includes her repeating the phrase “What the fuck now, Lizzie?” again and again), and Ward gives us well-received comedy cabaret. Saroca’s Lizzie is taciturn but comes alive when she belts out some big rock numbers.
Taken as it is on the page, Lizzie the show is a mess. Flipping from musical genre to musical genre and wildly ranging in tone, another draft or two would not have gone astray. The near absence of dialogue shows the writers have little interest in fleshing out the gory tale; this feels more like a concept album than a stage musical. Is Lizzie trying to be Broadway (the beautiful ballads suggest that’s an ambition) or fringe, experimental theatre (that’s where the pop punk tracks kick in) or be a fun camp murder romp (Act 2 descends into near pantomime)? It’s like a festival headlined by No Doubt with guest appearances by The Carpenters and Nick Cave. Maybe the writers were trying to show their range?
The Sydney creative team, Marsden the director, musical director Victoria Falconer and movement director Ghenoa Gela, work hard to smooth out the show’s bumpier moments. Divorcing the story from its location and history frees it to be bolder and potentially more honest. Lizzie gives us a same-sex romance that is sweet (Caccamo’s vocals are pure musical theatre gold), and thankfully lets Ward and Calder loose to play the comedy. Once all the stops have been taken away, the show gets to revel in its manic cabaret energy and deliver on the promise of a twisted, colonial-gothic romp. I just wish Saroca’s Lizzie achieved a fully cathartic moment (give me an Alanis-esque “You Oughta Know” moment – it’s literally the only thing Jagged Little Pill: The Musical got right).
In the end though, Lizzie lacks the substance to tell a satisfying story and ends up serving the tabloid version of events that diminish the women at the centre of the tale. Borden is given a series of vague motivations; was it about money? Was she manipulated? Or was it revenge for the killing of her pigeons? Oh God, don’t get me started on the pigeons. There is more to this woman than just being a “crazy, lesbian killer”, but the lack of character development handcuffs the production.
What we’re left with is a grab-bag of good tunes, sung to perfection, backed by a killer band. Taken as a concert/cabaret, this is hella good fun. As a musical… well, the writers should take another whack at it.
By Chad Armstrong
Lizzie plays at The Hayes Theatre, Sydney as part of the Sydney Festival until February 5th 2022.