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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

The Human Race Theatre Company
Review by Scott Cain | Season Schedule

Bird Goddard Giulietti Waickman
Photo by Scott J. Kimmins
If a rock musical based on the tale of Lizzie Borden sounds unique, it is. Lizzie recently canceled a planned run Off-Broadway this summer, but those wanting to experience the show can still do so at The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio. The stark, intriguing and tuneful musical is wonderfully performed by a quartet of talented women, and makes a strong case for a new staging of the show in New York.

Lizzie chronicles the true story of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of bludgeoning her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892. This musical, with a book by Tim Maner, has just four characters: Lizzie; her devoted neighbor Alice; her sister Emma; and Bridget, the maid. The show includes exposition, but doesn't overuse the storytelling device. The story introduces an unexpected romantic relationship, plenty of conflict, and psychological intrigue—and conveys the plot with sufficient clarity.

The score has music by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt and lyrics by Cheslik-DeMeyer. It is musically diverse, with straightforward musical theater tunes, a period-appropriate church hymn ("Watchmen for the Morning"), and several rock variations including punk and metal. Musical theater fans will recognize similarities to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, American Idiot, and Hair. The music may be loud and fast, but it's high quality. The lyrics aren't as strong, frequently opting for poetic vagueness that isn't often effective in musical theater, and repetitive at times. Song highlights include "Will You Stay?," "What the Fuck, Now, Lizzie?," and the excellent "Questions Questions," in which the characters react to and prepare for interrogations by the police following the murders.

Director Jamie Cordes infuses energy and a hip factor in his staging to match the pulsating rock anthems being performed. His blocking uses the various exits and entrances around the performing space well, and the rock personas taken on by the actresses generally feel authentic and unforced (with the exception of the number "Sweet Little Sister"). Cordes also wisely uses handheld microphones for some songs a la Spring Awakening, again bridging the gap between musical theater and rock concert. The limited choreography by Katie Johannigman is apt and visually pleasing, and Jay Brunner leads a high-octane six-piece band that fills the back wall of the stage.

The cast consists of some women who really know how to wail on these powerful songs. As Lizzie, Deanna Giulietti has a commanding stage presence and sings with great range (both note-wise and stylistically). She varies the character effectively between broken, vengeful, loving, and manipulative. Michaella Waickman skillfully conveys the sweet-natured Alice, but also the uncertainty of a girl with a secret of her own. She is endearing in both her acting and vocals. Natalie Bird provides great harmonies throughout and makes bold acting choices as Lizzie's sister Emma. Leslie Goddard is a bit pitchy in spots, but provides a solid foundation in the role of narrator and is fierce in her portrayal of the family help.

Ray Zupp's interesting set pays homage to the well-known nursery rhyme about Lizzie Borden, while also functioning as a rock concert venue, complete with torn concert-style newspaper ads plastered against the back wall by the band. The costumes by Liz Bourgeois are a combination of steampunk and grunge—a great look for this show. The lighting by John Rensel has elements of both concerts and theater, and the sound by Brian Retterer is great—a necessity for a rock musical.

Lizzie is an excellent option for summertime theater going and is certainly a fresh and modern take on musical theater. The production at Human Race boasts a superb cast performing a praiseworthy rock score, along with other strong elements.

Lizzie, through June 30, 2019, at The Human Race Theatre Company, 126 N Main Street, Dayton OH. For more information and tickets, call 937-228-3630 or visit