Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

TheaterWorks Hartford
Review by Zander Opper

Also see Fred's recent review of Copenhagen

Courtney Basset, Sydney Shepherd, and Nora Schell
Photo by Mike Marques
TheaterWorks Hartford is currently presenting a kinetic, enormously effective production of the musical Lizzie, based on the life and actions of the infamous murderer Lizzie Borden. As written by Steven Cheslik-Demeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, Lizzie is most definitely a rock musical, though there is variety in the score, including some truly heartfelt songs. The four-member cast is astounding, both in their acting and their singing. Add in tightly wound direction by Lainie Sakakura and you get quite an evening of theater. And, while those who do not favor rock musicals might not be the appropriate audience for Lizzie, the show does manage to engage a viewer throughout. TheaterWorks Hartford should be saluted for presenting a musical as edgy and audacious as Lizzie.

Lizzie first premiered in 2009 and has had a pretty regular series of stagings since then. It's a small-scale show, but one that can really get under your skin. When the audience first sees Lizzie Borden, portrayed by the super Sydney Shepherd, she is wearing a period costume and a sly smile. The other characters include Lizzie's sister Emma Borden (terrifically played by Courtney Bassett), their housekeeper Bridget Sullivan (embodied powerfully by Nora Schell), and perhaps the most endearing character in the show, the Borden's next door neighbor Alice Russell (the lovely Kim Onah). Interestingly, Lizzie and Emma's father and stepmother are not seen, though their presence is felt throughout.

The score mixes a range of styles that suit each scene. If it brings to mind Spring Awakening in its first half–characters wearing period perfect costumes (expertly designed by Saawan Tiwari) yet singing contemporary sounding music–the second act recalls the still-running Broadway revival of Chicago, with its sleekly skeletal set (courtesy of set designer Brian Prather), onstage band, and characters mostly clad in provocative black outfits. The reference to Chicago also extends to a courtroom scene in which Lizzie is tried for the murder of her father and stepmother.

Still, Lizzie doesn't really try to emulate any other show. It is a singular theatrical experience all its own. Of course, Lizzie Borden is the central character and Sydney Shepherd plays the part with a partial wink to the audience, taking on the controversial figure and having a great time of it. Early in the show, there is touching song between Lizzie and her neighbor Alice, which brings to the forefront a possible lesbian relationship between the characters. There is no song list in the program, but possible titles for the numbers can be gleaned from the lyrics. Kim Onah does wonderful job as Alice, especially delivering the solo, "If You Knew."

Courtney Bassett's Emma gets the delightfully twisted song, "Sweet Little Sister" (which this actress does full justice to), before Bassett and Shephard sing two searing duets. Despite being more in the background, as befits her as the housekeeper, Nora Schell scores as Bridgett, displaying a formidable voice as well as a magnetic onstage presence. One of the best aspects of the second act is that the all-woman band, led by the excellent music director Erika R. Gamez, takes center stage and makes quite an impression.

Among the other outstanding elements of the show are the magnificent projection design by Camilla Tassi and the finely sculpted lighting design by Rob Denton. The director keeps the whole production running at a good pace and, if there is any negative aspect, it would be that it almost becomes too much of a rock concert, losing some of the story and character-driven moments. Still Lizzie does end with a church-like anthem, with the lyric "My soul waits for the Lord...," which brings the show's historical period back to the forefront and the mix of past and present eras is tantalizing. Lizzie, at TheaterWorks Hartford, won't appeal to everyone, but this production is definitely worth a visit.

Lizzie runs through October 29, 203, at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St, Hartford CT. For tickets and information, please visit