Ax murder as musical? Yes, and cast/crew of ‘Lizzie’ at Actor’s Theatre aren’t typical, either
The women of “Lizzie” are on a mission – to make you feel for someone that history has taught you to hate. Add to that, in the show kicking off Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s 30th season, another statement: All four main characters are women – and the people backstage are, too.
“The cast is female,” says director Joanna Gerdy, “the band is female ... the production team ... the set designer ... the costume designer ... the choreographer ... It’s all women.” And the lineup includes a few unusual twists.
Everyone knows the story of Lizzie Borden, the young woman put on trial in Massachusetts in 1893, accused of hacking her father and stepmother to death. She was memorialized in the rhyme children learn: Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.
Though she was ultimately acquitted, suspicions persisted and she went down in history as some sort of monster.
The women of “Lizzie” want to change that. Through riotous rock anthems and tender ballads – in a version of the Borden story written by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt – the cast aims to make you feel sympathy for Lizzie while at the same time seeing what might have led to the killing she was accused of.
“Lizzie is the product of a severe father,” Gerdy explains. She and her sister, Emma, “were under this man’s thumb and there is a lot of talk of him ... not letting them out of the house and probably being sexually abusive.” This framing of the story “allows us to feel for these two women who had no other options and choice.”
It’s a #metoo blast from the Victorian past. “In the strangest way, by committing this act, she frees herself and allows herself to have a life that she didn’t have under this man’s thumb,” says Gerdy. (The tagline for the musical is “Death to the patriarchy! Literally.”)
The show stars Katy Shepherd, Kristin Jann- Fischer, Roseline Ciatu “CiCi” Kromah and Rachel “Shea” Shipley. Casting was done by a threeperson team: choreographer Emily Hunter, musical director Jessica Borgnis and Gerdy, and that process led to a few surprises.
“The amount of female talent we have in the Charlotte area is kind of unreal,” Hunter says. “It’s very rare that you go into a callback with about 10 women and have to narrow it down to four and think ‘God, I wish we could create more roles.’ ”
But narrow it down they did.
Lizzie is played by Shepherd, an Indiana native who moved to Charlotte four years ago. She’s been in several Actor’s Theatre shows: “They do very thought-provoking pieces, pieces that you’re not going to see other places.” Jann-Fischer, cast as Emma, is also a veteran, in Charlotte productions since 2007.
At 26, Kromah is youngest of the cast, playing Alice, who Gerdy says is “keeping a secret about her feelings for Lizzie.” Though new to theater, Kromah is no stranger to music: In 2013, as a junior at Appalachian State, made it through Charlotte’s final round auditions for “American Idol” and was sent to Hollywood.
Shipley, who plays Bridget, wasn’t actually even at the first audition. The accompanist heard her singing karaoke at NoDa 101 one night and convinced her to come out to callbacks.
She showed up and “blew us all away,” Gerdy says. Shipley says she really connects with her character: “She’s a survivor. I see her as someone that has a great inner power.” Shipley has a fine arts degree from Mars Hill but says that as a single mother with two kids, one with autism, she hasn’t had time for acting since then. With “Lizzie,” she is “blessed,” she says: Her parents are helping out and she’s gotten a leave of absence from her job at an uptown restaurant.
The show’s musicians offer surprises, too: Drummer Natalya Petrova says she emigrated from Kazakhstan three years ago, electric guitar player Charlotte O’Boyle is just 17 and a rising senior at East Mecklenburg, and bass player Harley Quinn (Stephanie Rogers) has been touring with her band, Venus Invictus, for two years.
The whole vibe of this murderous show, says Shipley, was warm and supportive. Jann-Fischer agrees: “It’s become more of a family unit faster ... a very quick bonding for us all.”
The cast of “Lizzie” from left: Rachel “Shea” Shipley; Katy Shepherd (in the title role), Kristin Jann-Fischer and CiCi Kromah.