You have to listen for it, but there’s a hint of music wafting over the torpor of the Theater District these days, an excited music that somehow, miraculously, isn’t drowned out by the bulldozers and cranes and traffic snarls of Bagby Street. Its unlikely provenance is the macabre tinkling of a piano and the plaintive howling of a murderess, and its tenor the unmistakable sound of a theater being born.
The announcement last summer that Theatre Under the Stars had sprouted an offshoot devoted to more contemporary—and daring—works of musical theater was met with a certain amount of cynicism in some circles. TUTS’ efforts at attracting a younger demographic seemed both obvious and doomed—musical theater was anathema to young audiences, wasn’t it? In short, there was every reason to believe that the company’s Underground series would prove an embarrassing misfire, which is one reason why a trip to Zilkha Hall is so exhilarating of late. Watching how quickly TUTS’ raucous, mesmerizing Lizzie relieves an audience of its skepticism is almost a show in itself, especially as it is indeed an audience of which geriatrics do not constitute the lion’s share.
Then again, to be fair, the blue-haired crowd seemed almost as enthusiastic in its applause as the non-, for Lizzie is a canny and crowd-pleasing work by every measure. Seizing on what few facts are known of Lizzie Borden—that infamous 19th-century figure who may or may not have cut up her father and stepmother with an axe—composers Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt, as well as co-lyricist and book writer Tim Maner, have fashioned a tuneful rock opera for four singing actresses (or rather four talented, full-throttle actresses, at least in this case) and six musicians (or rather six talented, inspired male musicians, at least in this case).
The result is an evening that, like Jesus Christ Superstar and its brethren in the rock musical canon, trades on the marriage of an anachronistic soundscape to a period setting, one that’s short on story complexity but chock full of hummable tunes. Thus do we get Lizzie (Carrie Manolakos) and the heartfelt “Maybe Someday,” an I-want song that firmly identifies our heroine as the heir to Eva Peron and Eliza Doolittle, even if the song cue in this case is double homicide. Thus do we see Lizzie, fresh from her bloody deed, confronted by her sister (Natalie Charle Ellis), who sings, “What the F*** Now, Lizzie?,” understandably enough. Thus are guitar riffs the driving force behind everything Lizzie does, including, say, destroying the bloody dress that implicates her (“Burn the Old Thing Up”).
But its feminist edge gives Lizzie a more contemporary appeal than Superstar, Tommy or any of a dozen other concept albums come to life. It doesn’t hurt that the score requires superb singing from first note to last, a vocal challenge that the TUTS quartet meets and exceeds in every way. All four women are clearly singing for their lives, none more so than the seductive and spiky-haired Carrie Cimma. And while her edgy, quick-to-anger performance as the Borden family maid sets the tone, Manolakos and Ellis are equally effective, as is Courtney Markowitz as Lizzie’s love interest and eventual betrayer.
Mention must be made too of Kent Nicholson’s direction, which manages to evoke Victorian era New England with little more than four microphone stands and John Farrell’s startling scenic projections. As musical director, Jim Vukovich conjures up inspired performances from his merry band of six, and Lisa Zinni’s costumes achieve a look that’s by turns punk and prudish.
A comment whispered in the men’s restroom during intermission (“well, it certainly isn’t very upbeat”) reminds us that Lizzie is not for everyone, particularly not those for whom musical theater is the exclusive domain of singing nuns and shiny little surreys with the fringe on the top. And as great a debut as TUTS’ Lizzie might seem to the rest of us, even greater is what it portends: a commitment by our city of the future to the future of musical theater, that most American of art forms. Watching the jubilant crowds pour out of Zilkha Hall and onto the plaza the other night, the excitement wasn’t just palpable, it was of a piece with the bulldozers and cranes and dusty construction sites. In our reveries, we began to wonder if Houston—that last great hope of American cities—might be the musical theater’s last great hope too. After all, where else on earth these days—save the world of musical theater and the world of Houston—are passionate voices, optimism, and ambition—both diabolical and otherwise—so warmly embraced?