LIZZIE: An Axe Musical

LIZZIE:  The Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

5th Wall Theatre

At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 E. Broad St. RVA 23219

Performances: October 11-November 3, 2018

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $20 Students; $20 RVATA Cardholders

Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3613679

 

Lizzie Bordon took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. Who would ever think of turning the story of Lizzie Borden into a musical? Well, apparently the team of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Steven Hewitt (music), Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner (lyrics), and Maner (book and additional music). The punk rock opera got its start as an experimental theater piece in 1990, and by 2013 had evolved into a two-act rock opera with an all-female cast and hard-driving (but thankfully not deafening) music.

Thanks to the opening number and finale, that old jump-rope rhyme will be stuck in my head for days, as will bits and pieces of this fascinatingly odd and weirdly satisfying piece of theater. Rachel Rose Gilmour is Lizzie Borden, while Rachel Marrs plays her sister Emma Borden, Anne Michelle Forbes takes the role of Lizzie’s friend Alice Russell, and Michaela Nicole fills the high-top sneakers of Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, the Borden’s maid.  Pualani “Lani” Felling and Morgan Lynn Meekins both pull triple duty “Roadies” who sing with the onstage band and also act as stagehands, moving the microphone stands and trunks that serve as the only props; they are also the understudies for the four main characters.

The five-piece band, under the very capable direction of Starlet Knight, is not merely accompaniment, as the music is the driving force behind this entire concept, and what a concept it is! The story of the bloody murders of Lizzie Borden’s stepmother and her father have been the subject of so many tales – in literature, movies, an opera, a television series, a ballet – that it seems more legend than fact. This production seems to freely mix fact and fiction as well as to attempt to time travel, placing the events of 1892 into the modern era of punk rock. Alex Valentin’s costumes are a blend of Victorian couture, 19th century bordello, and punk rock. Vinnie Gonzalez’ set design looks like the backstage area of a rock concert, consisting of stacks of trunks, speakers, and microphone stands. The band and their instruments and the roadies occupy the upstage area, and the actors and roadies often strut and stride, sometimes confronting the audience up close.

Lizzie, the Musical creates a big feel in an intimate space and I could not imagine it in a larger space. It needs to be seen and heard and felt from up close. Rachel Rose Gilmour gives a dynamic performance, running through a range of emotions from rage to fear, from crying out in desperation to vulnerability. There are intimations of abuse, incest, and lesbian relationships. There is murder and mystery, and while in real life Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders and lived out the rest of her life in the same town where the murders took place, Fall River, Massachusetts, there also seems to be a confession and a cover-up.

The entire cast is powerful, but in addition to Gilmour, I must mention Michaela Nicole. Not only does she give Bridget/Maggie a mysteriously strong attitude, but the woman can rock and roll with the best of them, and clearly makes this maid more than a supporting role. Marrs brings an edge to the sister, Emma and Forbes shows the friend Alice caught in the conflict between loyalty and truth.

If blood, gore, murder, mystery, strong women, and loud music with a head-banging beat appeal to you, you won’t go wrong with Lizzie, the Musical.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: 5th Wall Theatre

WINGS: A brilliant stroke of a musical

WINGS THE MUSICAL:

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: February 15 – March 10, 2018; Post-performance talkbacks March 1 & 8

Ticket Prices: $20-35

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

Bianca Bryan is brilliant as Emily Stilson, a former wing walker (a daredevil who performs acrobatics or stunts on the wings of a moving plane) navigating through the darkness and struggling to recover her memories and her words after suffering a stroke. Jeffrey Lunden’s Wings: The Musical is a not a musical in the traditional sense. Described in the Firehouse Theatre’s press release as a chamber musical because of its small cast of five and trio of musicians, Bryan’s role is written with a sometimes-operatic musicality that represents the depth and scope of Emily’s reach for her former self.

The focus is almost entirely on Emily, and Bryan remains on stage for the entire 80 minutes. Her mastery of the garbled speech patterns of a stroke patient are all too familiar and make the clarity of her singing even more dazzling.  As is so often the case this season, there is no intermission. Lauren Elens has a strong supporting role as Emily’s discerning therapist and friend, Amy, and Landon Nagel has a shining moment as a fellow patient in Emily’s rehabilitation center as, Billy. A former baker or chef, Billy has trouble remembering his signature recipes, but finds putting his thoughts into song during a music therapy session helpful. The result is a fabulous song about cheesecake.

Andrew Colletti and Lucinda McDermott round out the cast, playing dual roles, first as Emily’s somewhat stern and distant doctor and nurse and later as fellow patients and group members Mr. Brambilla and Mrs. Timmins. Bryan sings most of her lines; the rest of the cast speaks most of theirs.

On a raised platform, Music Director Kim Fox plays keyboard, with Maddie Erskine on cello and Taylor Bendus on Flute. (Even with the raised platform, the petite Fox was invisible behind her music stand, but her signature musical style and direction were unmistakable.) The music is quite good and combined with the sound design and lights Wings is a small musical that carries a big impact.

Vinnie Gonzalez designed a clean and spare set, populated with a couple of movable benches, a serving art, and a wheeled chair – not a wheelchair – for Emily. Two platforms adorned with wires added depth and there were subtle touches like the protective griffin symbols painted on the blue walls and the double winged ceiling fan over the stage. Bill Miller’s lighting was at times breathtakingly beautiful, especially at the end, and Jason Blue Herbert’s sound design added depth and texture, peppered with realistic roaring engines. All of this was beautifully woven together by Kerrigan Sullivan’s sensitive direction, bringing a gentle and empathetic perspective to a difficult and seldom explored subject.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Bill Sigafoos — Bianca Bryan, Lauren Elens, Landon Nagel, Lucinda McDermott, Andrew Colletti, Maddie Erskine, Kim Fox, Taylor Bendus

 

TO DAMASCUS – a new opera by Walter Braxton

TO DAMASCUS: The World Premiere of a New Opera by Walter Braxton

A Theater/Opera Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: Thu, 1/18 – 7:30pm (preview); Fri, 1/19 – 7:30pm (press opening); Sat, 1/20 – 7:30pm; Sun, 1/21 – 4pm (post performance panel/talkback); Thu, 1/25 – 7:30pm; Fri, 1/26 – 7:30pm; Sat, 1/27 – 7:30pm

Ticket Prices: Tickets $15 – $40
Info: ​​ (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

If you’ve never seen or heard an opera, and the very thought of attending an opera sends shivers up and down your spine, you must understand that To Damascus is not your everyday opera. If you are an opera aficionado, To Damascus may be pushing the envelope over the edge (yes that’s a mixed metaphor, but so appropriate for this occasion). I think I heard someone describe Walter Braxton’s new postmodern musical as an “anti-opera,” but if you chose to use that definition, please think of it in a positive way.

What is To Damascus about? Well, it has no story in the traditional sense. But, as the title suggests, it has a deep spiritual foundation. In the New Testament, in Acts chapter 9, the Damascus Road is where Paul (then Saul) met Jesus and was converted. A Damascus Moment has come to refer to a turning point in one’s life, a sudden interruption in the day-to-day rituals that define one’s existence and often sets one on the way to living life with purpose and meaning.

There are many rituals in To Damascus. Act One begins with the five vocalists cleaning, wrapping, and packing shoes. Stacks of vintage suitcases and trunks fill the stage, and many of them hold shoes – everything from stilettos to brogans. Shoes are important when traveling. Act One ends with the cast members circling the stage in a ritual that has them assembling BLTs – yes, sandwiches.  There is a toaster and a hot plate, a bag of Wonder Bread, and all the fixings. A traveler needs sustenance.

Act Three begins with water rituals: hand washing; rinsing apples; pouring water from a bottle to a glass and back again. Each act is repeated over and over, not unlike the daily rituals repeated by people with OCD tendencies. During the water rituals, there are no words, just instrumental music.

Mr. Braxton’s music is beautiful, mesmerizing. Oddly, it tends to stay on the same level, with gentle swells and rises, like the gentle hills of an urban park, rather than the rolling hills of wide open acres. A sixteen-piece orchestra was crammed onto a raised platform above the stage, filling the space with the pastoral strains of Braxton’s score – a score that, at times, was in stark contrast to the carefully choreographed postmodern confusion taking place on the stage.

In his pre-show curtain talk – which took place in the theater’s lobby, instead of inside the theater proper – Firehouse Artistic Director and the show’s Director, Joel Bassin, shared that To Damascus” is not your ordinary opera, that there is no traditional story line, and that it is best to focus on the sounds rather than the words.

Mr. Braxton takes many of his words directly from the bible. There is no libretto in the traditional sense, nothing to clue the audience as to what is happening, no synopsis as would be provided for an opera written in German.  Excerpts included in the program include the words of Psalm 121 and a variety of poems and prose.

Michele Baez (soprano), Michael David Gray, and Chase Peak were the de facto lead singers, with Imani Thaniel (a VCU theater major) and Elisabeth Carlton Dowdy (a VCU Music Education graduate) in supporting roles.  Ms. Thaniel’s staging sometimes kept her partially hidden from the audience; this was true whether she was positioned stage left or stage right. She was often hidden by stacks of luggage.

Ms. Baez and Mr. Gray had the most commanding voices, but the performers had little direct interaction. While they rarely looked at or communicated directly with one another, they had plenty to do, interacting with a wide and wild assortment of props that seemed to appear out of thin air. It was almost as if the director had incorporated subtle magic tricks. Mr. Braxton’s music and Mr. Bassin’s direction were a perfect fit for The Firehouse, and if some left the theater wondering what happened – at least they left relaxed rather than agitated. To Damascus does not assault the senses, but somehow amplifies them.

Leilani Fenick is the Musical Director and Vocal Coash, and Michael Knowles deftly conducted from a raised platform in a downstage corner. Rather than a set designer, To Damascus has Environmental Design by Isabel Layton, and the production team also included Lighting Design by Bill Miller and Costumes by Kathleen O’Connor.

As for Walter Braxton, he is an African-American composer born and raised in RVA. He was a child prodigy – while attending Mary Scott Elementary School, he wrote the class song. To Damascus is an opportunity to learn about and appreciate the work of a local artist who may be unknown to too many of us.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Photos by Bill Sigafoos

Facebook CBS 6 News Post:

Walter Braxton was Richmond’s child prodigy – composing symphonies before he was even out of high school. A mental breakdown at age 18 ended his promising career. January 19 at 7:30pm, the Firehouse Theater presented Braxton’s opera, TO DAMASCUS, for the very first time, followed by Mark Holmberg’s story at 11.