Ax mur­der as mu­si­cal? Yes, and cast/crew of ‘Lizzie’ at Ac­tor’s Theatre aren’t typ­i­cal, ei­ther

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY CLAUDETTE BAKHTIAR Cor­re­spon­dent

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.”

Fenix Fo­tog­ra­phy

The cast of “Lizzie” from left: Rachel “Shea” Ship­ley; Katy Shep­herd (in the ti­tle role), Kristin Jann-Fis­cher and CiCi Kromah.

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