Musical numbers: “Even for August,” “Quiet Little Town,” “Before the Tea Party,” “The House on the Hill,” “First Tea Party,” “Every Time I Look at You,” “Buttons,” “Fly Away,” “Second Tea Party,” “The Maggie Work,” “Another Dinner,” “Hot,” “The Trial of Lizzie Borden Unwinds,” “Oh How Awful! Oh How Sad!,” “Ever Since August,” “Bridget Unwinds,” “So Easily,” “I Cry Alone,” “Third Tea Party,” “Story of the Year.”
When Michael Brown satirized the Fall River legend in the musical revue “New Faces of 1952,” the crime of the century was hilariously well defined: “You can’t chop your Mama up in Massachusetts!” Teaneck’s American Stage Co. has picked up the ax and taken the dire deed a step further with an ambitious, if dour, musical retelling of the bizarre Lizzie Borden murder case.
With the New Bedford trial following the bludgeoning death of Lizzie’s dictatorial parents in 1892 serving as a framing device, the musical illustrates events leading up the massacre in brief flashbacks. Richly layered choral passages by townsfolk, merchants and the gossipy tea-party matrons relate the accumulating facts.
Lizzie is revealed to be a chronic kleptomaniac and a victim of her father’s sexual abuse, but she was acquitted due to the circumstantial nature of the evidence. The alleged weapon was never found, a bloodied dress was burned, and there were no eyewitnesses to the crime. The plot suggests Lizzie was a co-conspirator along with her sister, Emma, and an elusive handyman. Those not familiar with the lurid details will be easily confused by the book’s lack of cohesive continuity.
A disturbing similarity to the O.J. Simpson controversy draws audience laughter when the state prosecutor proclaims, “This is the USA. Murderers just don’t walk free!”
The score by Christopher McGovern and Amy Powers clearly boasts a Sondheim influence. The individual songs have a certain sameness, but “Fly Away,” which describes Lizzie’s yearnings, and “The House on the Hill,” about the promise of future comfort and security, are quite lovely. Both are sung by Lizzie (Alison Fraser) and her youthful alter-ego, a wistfully pale little girl who wanders throughout the proceedings. The innocence of a little girl lost is sweetly projected by Madeline Blue.
Rose McGuire as the Borden maid has a welcoming comic moment with “Bridget Unwinds.” Fraser portrays the alleged murderess with coiled intensity. The actress sings with a small, light and pretty voice, but has chosen to use an oddly arch and affected accent.
The action flows gracefully in Bill Castellino’s staging. The show always looks handsome, and the actors move comfortably on the small stage. Michael Anania’s sets have a picturesque New England look. His clean, spare designs shifts easily from courtroom to the tea-carts and potbelly stoves of shops and homes, and Dale DiBernardo’s period costumes are elegant.
The story of Lizzie Borden is an unnerving, provocative tale, certainly no less lurid than “Sweeney Todd.” With a tightened perspective and some reshaping, the musical has distinct possibilities for a future life.