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Firebrand Theatre’s ‘Lizzie’ sets the stage on fire

Liz Chidester (center front) plays Lizzie Borden, with (from left) Camilla Robinson as Emma, Leah Davis as Bridget and Jacquelyne Jones as Alice in the musical, "Lizzie," a Firebrand Theatre production. | Marisa KM

Take a pure American gothic tale that grabbed the headlines in a small New England town in 1892 and quickly went on to become a cause celebre across the nation. Set it to a volcanic, quaisi-operatic punk rock beat that captures the sense of female rage, retribution and betrayal, and feels custom-made for the current climate. And then just let it roar.

‘LIZZIE’
Highly recommended
When: Through Dec. 17
Where: Firebrand Theatre at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $45 (Late night, $30)
Info: www.firebrandtheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission

In short, “Lizzie,” the riveting musical about the notorious Lizzie Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts, turns out to be the ideal inaugural production for Firebrand Theatre, the new Equity musical theater company “committed to employing and empowering women by expanding their opportunities on and off the stage.” And, with apologies to Helen Reddy, the subtitle of this show  — the creation of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner — might well be “I am woman, hear me roar,” even if the popular rhyme about the incident puts it this way: “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one.”

Liz Chidester (front, from left), Jacquelyne Jones, Camille Robinson and Leah Davis (top) in the Firebeand Theatre production of “Lizzie.” | Marisa KM

Yes, it is that story, but told in what might just be the most convincing (and intriguingly open-ended) version you’ve ever seen. And be advised: Ponchos are distributed to those in the first few rows of the intimate Den Theatre space where it is being performed. “Blood” is most definitely spilled.

But it is the scorching score, and the radiant voices and galvanic personalities of the women who portray Lizzie (Liz Chidester), her older sister, Emma (Camille Robinson), her neighbor and lover, Alice (Jacquelyne Jones), and the Borden family maid, Bridget (Leah Davis), that truly get your blood surging as they suggest what might have happened in the Borden household on an August night in 1892.

The back story is of the essence. Lizzie and Emma share a large house with their wealthy but troubled father, Andrew, and their fortune-hunter stepmother, Abby. Lizzie has become the victim of incest by her father, while Emma somehow seems able to escape the worst of the deviance, but is unable to protect her sister. Lizzie longs to fly away from her prison-like situation, but in the meantime she cares for the pigeons who live in a roost on the property. She also finds an uneasy but enticing comfort with her neighbor, Alice, a lesbian far more at ease with her feelings than Lizzie.

Did Lizzie really wield that axe? Did Emma, who leaves town at just the right moment (but makes sure Lizzie has a book about poisons) incite her sister to do the job so that she might inherit all the family’s money and make a permanent escape? And when push comes to shove, and Lizzie is put on trial, who will offer testimony on her behalf, and who will protect themselves?

In development since 1990, first seen in its current form in 2013 at Houston’s Theater Under the Stars, and subsequently in New York and beyond, the musical’s sung-through score, clearly in the tradition of “Sweeney Todd” (but with the actresses moving with animal intensity and often grabbing hold of standing mics as if performing in a grungy downtown club) is bloody sensational, with a mix of hard belts, ballads and poetic escape numbers bearing such titles as “The Soul of the White Bird” and “Shattercane and Velvet Grass.” Watching it is akin to waiting for someone to pop the cap on a grenade.

Victoria Bussert’s direction is a fine mix of in-your-face fury, sexual confusion and solitary pain with Chidester a sensational blend of victim and perpetrator, Robinson at once haughty and enigmatic, Jones both sultry and subtly manipulative and Davis full of the dark humor and detachment of an intimate onlooker.

Whether solo or in rousing harmony, the actresses (in Charlotte M. Yetman’s eye-catching cross-era costumes) make the theater vibrate. Applause, too, for the sensational musical direction of conductor/keyboardist Andra Velis Simon and sound design by Victoria Deiorio, and the all-female band (Stella Vie on bass, Nora Barton on cello and Courtney McNally on drums) that rocks it to the rafters in perfect synch with an axe attack.

NOTE: There will be four late night “concert style” performances of “Lizzie”(Dec. 1, 2, 8 and 9 at 11 p.m.) featuring understudies, including Kyrie Anderson as Lizzie, Tatiana Bustamante as Bridget, Elle Walker as Alice and Dakota Hughes as Emma. Tickets for these shows will be pay-what-you-can.

Camille Robinson (left) is Emma and Liz Chidester is Lizzie Borden in the Firebrand Theatre production of the musical “Lizzie.” | Marisa KM