24th February 2017
This is the greatest American musical since ‘Sweeney Todd’. I have seen it twice this week, in the wonderful production by the American director, Victoria Bussert, that is now playing for just three weeks at Greenwich Theatre, and I do not make that claim lightly. Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to miss it.
In a way, it’s not surprising that it’s so good. The result of about 30 years of gradual gestation, it has passed through innumerable phases, conceived by and at first the work of Steven Cheslik-Demeyer (music and lyrics) and Tim Maner (lyrics and book and additional music), who were then later joined by Alan Stevens Hewitt (music, additional lyrics, arrangements). The three have laboured long and hard, in astonishingly symbiotic balance with each other, in a mutual quest to improve the show. Now, they indeed do seem to have attained what is about as close to perfection as anyone might hope to get. And, in the magnificent production, we now see, it is in all but name one of the best West End shows on offer – but available for a strictly limited period in an Off-West-End theatre.
Lizzie, of course, refers to the infamous late 19th-century parenticide, Lizzie Borden, who notoriously ‘took an axe/ Gave her mother forty whacks;/ When she saw what she had done,/ Gave her father forty-one.’ This is a rhyme known across the world, and she is possibly one of the greatest Bad Girls of all time. There have been many different treatments of the tale, and this probably won’t be the last, but it is going to be a hard job for anyone else to achieve the depth and power of this interpretation. Here, she and her tale are elevated to almost the status of characters from Greek tragedy, and Shakespearean references infuse the fabric of the tale of divided families, neglect, cruelty, sexual abuse and bloody revenge.
The entire show is a spectacular rock concert: and, incredibly, even though written by three men, this work features just four women, who have – apart from the band behind them – exclusive possession of the stage. When did we last see that in a musical? Their rock band plays in the wings, controlled by an MD on keys sunken into a hole in the downstage (the superb Martin Bermann Konge). Lights flash and blaze from gantries. Smoke belches through the air. Digital projections glitter and shimmer in the background. The sound system envelops us in perfectly well-balanced amplification (and always at a ‘comfortable’ level!). This might as well be a rock concert.
But something is different. The women wear long 19th century dresses: handsome middle-class brocades or simple work clothes. Yet, holding hand mikes and always reminding us that we are still in the modern world, they sing to us: the maid, Bridget Sullivan (played wonderfully by Jodie Jacobs, mixing menace and comedy in a terrifying cocktail); the neighbour and best friend, Alice Russell (the soulful and gorgeous Bleu Woodward); the stern older sister, Emma Borden (the one American member of the company, the towering presence that is Eden Espinosa); and finally the tragic villainess herself, Lizzie Borden (here given lastingly memorable incarnation by the lone survivor of the original Danish cast, Bjorg Gamst). Each one of these could cheerfully have led a whole evening of songs, but we – lucky audience that we are – get the entire quartet to deliver the stunning score of stadium-sized power anthems, exquisitely moving ballads, dramatic scenas, quirky novelty numbers, disarmingly post-modernistic folk songs, skewed hymns and – occasionally – brief patches of interlinking dialogue. And they dance. In heels!
Lights flash and blaze from gantries (thanks to the genius of Martin Jensen). Smoke belches through the air. Digital projections glitter and shimmer in the background (the work of Martin Sand Vallespir). The sound system envelops us in perfectly well-balanced amplification (and always at a ‘comfortable’ level – because of the perfect skill of sound designer Tim Hoyer). This might as well be a rock concert.
But something is different. The women wear long 19th century dresses: handsome middle-class brocades or simple work clothes, in the first of a range of splendid designs by Michael Nohr (with additional designs from Anna Juul Holm), with hair and all-important make-up by Frey Olafsson – and even more remarkable looks will appear in the second half.
It’s a brisk ride, but one in which every instant of expression is exactly matched to the narrative demands of the moment. For example, in one hurried number, as the crisis of the second act approaches, the music even turns into a harried 7/8, with the next bar crashing in before the preceding one has even had a chance to finish. The music is chock full of such felicities, and it would take an entire volume of notes to itemise them all. The scoring is as masterful as the greatest albums of Quincy Jones or even Gil Evans: motivic development runs through it, and instrumental colour and density are used to enhance the dramatic impact of events with Puccinian precision. And the masterful MD: holding the show together is the man who has been with the show since 2014, as has his top-flight team of guitars (Steffen Schackinger and Jens Kokholm), bass (Allan Nagel), drums and percussion (Lars Daugaard), and cello and percussion (Jess Cox).
Victoria Bussert is a long-term collaborator of Danish producer Soren Moller, who for years now has been leading a brilliantly enterprising programme of new musical theatre premieres at Denmark’s Fredericia Teater, turning it into the site of an endless list of European first performances of great new works from the USA and elsewhere. Having seen the Off-Broadway production of the show, and fallen in love with it, he engaged Bussert to take it on, and with her mounted this staging back in 2014. Greg Daniels came in to provide the impassioned original choreography. It played in repertory – in Danish translation – for one season, clocking up about a month’s worth of performances. Now, partly recast and performed in the original English, and having been revived briefly at the Fredericia’s extraordinary rural location (a kind of Goodspeed for contemporary repertoire), with Katy Lipson’s Aria Entertainments as Co-Producer and General Manager, this remarkable work gets the best British premiere it could possibly wish for, and all at the bargain prices demanded by the Greenwich Theatre (top price £26). Small wonder that tickets are rapidly being snapped up; at the two performances I attended there were hardly any unfilled seats. Honestly, offering top quality adventurously experimental musical theatre at a budget price like this is something the National Theatre does. And this is as good as anything you might see in the Olivier or Dorfman.
So, don’t delay. Get your tickets booked now and thank your lucky stars that you can fall in love with Lizzie through her music and theatrical magic, staying a safe distance from ‘that’ axe!