Spindle City, the Lizzie Borden Musical Review - Murder and Mayhem in the Gay Nineties

Katrina Wood has achieved a trifecta in this musical, authoring book, lyrics, and music. Perhaps on the surface Lizzie’s is a strange story to turn into a musical. Playwright Wood suggests that Lizzie Borden’s tale may be more enigmatic than children’s songs would suggest. How is it that an axe-wielding woman who reportedly “gave her father 40 whacks…and her mother 41” could also be a sensitive and generous woman who worried obsessively about the welfare of the children in her care?

James J. Cox, Paul Wong, and Emily Bridges - Photo by Rick Rose

The world around Lizzie Borden also stars in this musical. It’s the “Gay Nineties” in Fall River, Massachusetts, a city nicknamed “Spindle City” because of its reputation as a major producer of textiles. It just so happens that Lizzie’s father, the wealthy Andrew Borden (Chas Mitchell), runs the largest textile mill in the U.S. He controls the lives of hundreds of workers – and even controls them after they die, since he also runs the local funeral parlor.

Chas Mitchell, Sarah Hoback, Bianca Vanderhorst, Jazmine Ramay, and Rick Simone - Photo by Rick Rose

Lizzie’s father has brought into the home his second wife, Lizzie’s stepmother Abby (Jazmine Ramay), who happens to be the daughter of one of the other richest families in the city. Lizzie doesn’t like her stepmother very much, leading to tension in the household. Another source of tension just might be Lizzie’s attraction to Nance O’Neil (Kristin Towers-Rowles), a naughty1890’s actress.

Kristin Towers-Rowles - Photo by Rick Rose

But wealth in the Massachusetts of 1892 did not equal social conscience. The mill is a dangerous place which does little for its workers’ safety – or even ability to survive about poverty level. The mill bosses also highjack young children as workers, preventing them from getting an education and keeping them chained to the mill culture. Lizzie’s situation, in its own way, is not much better. As a female in the nineteenth century, she has no influence or power over the way things are. In fact, Lizzie is a painfully plain spinster who must fend off a member of the well-to-do elite in town hoping to join two fortunes – at a time when marriage was the only path open to women for a modicum of independence. In a way, Lizzie (Emily Bridges) is not the only one on trial as the play opens. The entire system might be on trial as well. Did Lizzie Borden commit the murders she is on trial for? Was she a mad woman who snapped? Or was more going on than was permitted to be seen or acknowledged in the era?

Rowan Treadway, James J. Cox, and Chas Mitchell - Photo by Rick Rose

SPINDLE CITY has done a bang-up job of presenting this musical – considering the very limited resources available and the absence of many theater staples. Director Trace Oakley does an excellent job of helming the production. The cast of 17 sang, danced, and sometimes entered and exited through the audience doors after threading their way through the theater bathroom. Aaron Glazer’s set design definitely made the most of the much abbreviated square footage. Taylor Moten’s costumes were striking and just right for this turn of the century story. Averi Yorek’s choreography was fun to watch. Special kudos to a very talented youngster, Christian Simon (Joey), who made his theatrical debut in this play and clearly has a future in theater. This kid can dance, but he also has great timing and a twinkle in his eye.

Bianca Vanderhorst, Sarah Hoback, Kristin Towers-Rowles, and Emily Bridges - Photo by Rick Rose

SPINDLE CITY – THE LIZZIE BORDEN MUSICAL runs November 5, 2016, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and 3 p.m. on Sundays.  The Secret Rose Theatre is located at 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601. Tickets are $28 ($18 veterans/seniors/students and $15 children). For information and reservations, call 323-960-7780 or go online.

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