While outside it may be snowy and cold, inside The Den Theatre is revving up their engines nightly for one hell of a hot show, Firebrand Theatre’s Lizzie. Coincidentally timed with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Lizzie is the premiere show from Chicago’s first feminist theatre company, Firebrand. Producer, writer, singer, performer and actor, Harmony France, brings her signature ambitious pedigree center stage, mounting a bold, brazen and utterly unapologetic show that is essential viewing. Lizzie is the story of infamous axe murderess Lizzie Borden, the macabre nursery rhyme has been transformed into an electric, powerful and sexy concert style musical. For a little backstory, Lizzie was originally an edgy, 2009 off-Broadway rock opera cult-hit. With book and lyrics by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner, the harsh realities behind Lizzie’s act of vengeance has the audience rooting for her by the shows climax. Directed by Victoria Bussert with Assistant Director/ Movement Director Jon Martinez, strap yourself in for a fun-filled, feminist revenge fantasy tale grounded in reality by fierce performances and powerful visuals.
The key behind the success of this staging is a deceptively tenacious powerhouse quartet. As the title character, Liz Chidester’s Lizzie is a scrappy survivor, one part Courtney Love, one part Tina Turner, who laid out a compelling blueprint of her character’s burgeoning sexuality against the atrocities that go along with being an incest survivor. Her performance and smoky, powerful vocals allow the audience in, giving compelling reason to her unholiest of acts, taking an axe to her abusive father and gold-digging stepmother. Faithfully by her side, feisty older sister Emma (Camille Robinson) with her indomitable vocals and commanding stage presence in tow. As this show has been extended, this part is now being played by Ciara Renee, who was recently featured on CW’s DC’S Legends of Tomorrow as another powerful woman; Hawkgirl herself. As the neighbor and Lizzie’s eventual lover Alice, Jacquelyne Jones masterfully worked her mournfully sultry vocals, with simmering passions oozing from every fiber of this dangerous duo. Rounding out this foursome, Leah Davis as the maid, Bridget. She brings fierce comic timing and exuberance, with a magnificently smoky voice full of intensity, swagger and soul. Trust me, you will definitely want to roll with this supremely rocking quartet of funky divas.
As Firebrand is committed to telling stories with a focus on female protagonists, their fundamental goal of inclusiveness doesn’t end at the edge of the stage. Musical Director, Andra Velis Simon, leads of team of hard rocking female musicians, with their buzz-saw guitar licks populating a kaleidoscope of feminist striving cathartic confessions. This score is filled with both hard-edged and tortured love songs, allowing each performer the ability to flex their muscles and independent natures, not common in the original time period. Maya Michele Fein’s concert flavored lighting impressed, creating moments of true drama. Charlotte Yetmann’s costuming, from act one’s more demure period pieces to act two’s dominatrix goth archetypes with spellbinding sensuality, must be seen to be believed. The sisters here are truly doing it for themselves and clearly having a ball. It would be impossible not to acknowledge the influences and obvious inspirations of artist of today, including Pink, Lady Gaga, Kate Bush and Alanis Morissette, with more than a tip of the hat to Carrie The Musical, but the end result is thoroughly original Lizzie.
One more tidbit unique to this particular staging, for those close to the action, there is a splash effect advisory for the front few rows. You see when Lizzie takes said axe into her hands, repeatedly smashing two painted watermelons, artfully substituted for her parents’ heads, it is a powerful Gallagher meets Xena the Warrior Princess moment of triumphant revenge. Set in 1893, this may lead to an uncomfortable discussion with your 2018 dry cleaner, as you will need to explain random ricochet watermelon blood splatters on your trousers. The front row was whimsically gifted with rain-ponchos the night I attended, however from my third row vantage point, I got “nicked” more than once.
What an auspicious debut for an up and coming company. Firebrand Theatre’s grim, yet passionate musical impressed from beginning to end. The lyrics of tormented love stay with you long after you have left the theater. Opaque, seductive, poignant and also endlessly entertaining, Lizzie is, simply put, the must see show of the new year.
Firebrand Theatre presents Lizzie is now playing at The Den Theatre through January 14, 2018