TAMPA —No reasonably sane person would go to see a musical about Lizzie Borden hoping for realism.
Nor would audiences accept a sanitized version of America's most infamous double murder suspect not named O.J. Simpson, one that portrays the 32-year-old Fall River, Mass., woman as a victim. To set the hook, Lizzie has to have some nonpecuniary motive for allegedly hacking up her father and stepmother with an ax.
Jobsite Theater last weekend opened Lizzie, a rock musical created by Tim Maner, Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt, at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. This production seems to aim for a tongue-in-cheek playfulness that also has something to say; it succeeds in the tongue-in-cheek part. Four women run through a highly interpretive version of the story at fast clip, playing loosely drawn characters while hitting the music hard, backed up by a first-rate band.
Colleen Cherry plays Lizzie as an ingenue, a victim of incest by her father, whose portrait is projected high on a wall. Cherry has a fine voice and is at her best in the heart of a song. If the naive Lizzie she plays — the one who kills her father with an ax because he killed her pigeons with a hatchet and also molested her — seems a little harder to swallow, well, blame the script. Heather Krueger plays her gritty sister, Emma, who also has anger issues but is tough. Christina Capehart turns in a strong performance as sultry neighbor Alice Russell, Lizzie's confidante and lover. And Fo'i Meleah totally nails the role of Bridget Sullivan, the maid whose snark spares no one.
Bottom line, this is a party with good live music. The mood amps up six songs in with Sweet Little Sister, in which the score's heavy metal subtext starts to bare its fangs. Pioneer dresses snap off in favor of fishnets and leather. Costumes by Brittany Reuther factored in heavily, notably a fire-engine red top and thigh-high boots worn by Capehart. Some inventive choreography by Alison Burns Jackson hints at bondage (the nonconsensual kind) and allows actors to metaphorically set fire to the stage by twirling orange ribbons.
Furniture in the second act includes two shrouded bodies, but the murders happen offstage. The suggestion is that Andrew Borden, at least, deserved whatever he got. For now, Lizzie is easier to like if you just approach it as a party. The staging suggests as much, with the women dragging mic stands around in some numbers. On Saturday, there would have been mist on that stage as well, but the unavailability of a fire marshal meant the theater had to leave the hazer off. (The situation has been fixed, the theater said.)
Cherry's soprano sometimes got drowned out by the driving punk sounds of the band. Paradoxically for this musical, the song that best showed off her pipes, Watchmen for the Morning, was a hymn. Sung in duet with Krueger and a six-piece band including a cello, the musicianship all round created an exquisite moment.
While Lizzie sort of poses as anthem of female empowerment, it's easier to like if not freighted with those expectations. It's hard to imagine a musical about O.J., although maybe by 2116 that story will be hilarious, too.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.