Lizzie Starts off TUTS Underground With a Rock Concert Format

The set-up:

Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) inaugurates its new TUTS Underground series with the rock musical Lizzie. The series promises "No revivals. No dead authors. No boundaries", and prices begin at $24. TUTS Underground debuts with the story of Lizzie Borden, tried and acquitted for the murder of her father and stepmother in Fall River, in 1892.

The execution:

The creators (Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner) chose the form of a rock concert rather that a musical drama, presenting four female rockers in skin-tight costumes, by Lisa Linni, featuring leather mini-skirts, corsets, and bustiers. This is clearly a concert, with a theme, and the four protagonists onstage portray not their characters as much as their rock star personas. The good news is that the band, seen upstage from time-to-time but usually hidden behind a scrim, is great, the music is a driving force, and the concert is unusually entertaining.

As a concert, the most frequent actions are moving from hand mike to floor mike, though there are occasional vignettes, such as Lizzie reclining in the lap of her friend Alice, or Lizzie's older sister Emma picking up a valise to leave the house. The most exciting event to me was in that departure scene, when Lizzie muses: "What if Mrs. Borden was dead?" and Emma spins dramatically on her heels, to take in the possibility. There are few such moments of genuine excitement.

Lizzie is presented as a bit of a heroine, with hints of a Joan of Arc triumph as she is acquitted. The victims are never seen, though projections of dripping blood convey their slaughter. Though killed with a hatchet, the familiar nursery rhyme mentions an axe: "Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty one." This apparently is the reason Lizzie is at one point handed a large woodsman's axe, almost as large as she, and one that she clearly could not have wielded. The diminutive Carrie Manolakos portrays Lizzie, though Lizzie Borden was described by contemporaries as tall.

Natalie Charle Ellis plays Emma, the older sister, Courtney Markowitz plays Lizzie's friend Alice, and Carrie Cimma plays Bridget, the maid. All are laced tightly into their costumes - those for Manolakos are not especially flattering. Markowitz is a tall, long-haired redhead with a stunning physicality, and her magnificent stage presence made me want to see her again, as I did Ellis, who managed to create an interesting character as well as a rock star. There is something antithetical about a maid as a rock star, but Cimma as Bridget soldiered through bravely. Manolakos as Lizzie failed to fill out her character with humanity, remaining distant and inscrutable, perhaps intentionally so. But it's like watching a diorama through a plate glass window, while hearing: "Here is where we were. Here is what we did." The result is cold, faraway, not involving, and not especially dramatic.

The sense of family came through best in Act Two, with duets by Lizzie and Emma, chiefly with "The Fall of the House of Borden". In Act One, "Gotta Get Out of Here" captured the feeling of claustrophobia in the loveless household. The song "The Will" where an inheritance change is revealed by Emma to Lizzie, generated some real emotion, and the burning of a possibly blood-stained dress is staged with imagination.

The voices are powerful and ride along with the drumbeat of the music, omnipresent in Act One and dominant in Act Two. An occasional flatness does little to impede the tsunami that sweeps from the amplified microphones. Kent Nicholson directed and choreographed, and delivers in spades the energy and pace that rock concerts promise. The projection designs by Joe McGuire are an important part of the staging, and are usually relevant and can be witty, though a repetitive sepia photograph of the house itself is boring, adding little.

The evening is best enjoyed for its musical power, without expectations of theatrical magic. But even as a concert musical, a few haunting questions arise: Are four female rockers a few too many? If there is no real attempt to re-create the ambience of Fall River at the end of the 19th century, why not savor this as a CD rather than a staged concert? And should there be a point-of-view -- ambiguity in theater can be gripping, but should there be someone, perhaps a narrator, to speak for the unseen victims?

TUTS Underground is a most welcome innovation, and should be helpful in attracting younger patrons to theater, and TUTS is to be commended for offering it. There is some chance the prohibition against dead authors may turn out to be a shackle, rather than a liberating asset, but I assume this can be waived if, for example, a riveting musical production of Titus Andronicus comes along. The next presentation, in December, will be Fifty Shades! -The Musical, a comical parody inspired by the best-selling trilogy about a young woman's introduction to sado-masochism - it certainly sounds edgy.

The verdict:

Lizzie is an unusually interesting rock concert, carried along by a strong narrative theme, with vocal authority and a truly great band. If you like rock, you'll love Lizzie.

Lizzie continues through October 20 at Zilka Hall, Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information or ticketing, call 713-558-8887 or contact www.tutsunderground.com.

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