Like Gwen Stefani circa “Just a Girl”—only homicidal and clad in Victorian dress—the Lizzie Borden of rock opera Lizzie is a foot-stomping, hair-flinging rebel who can rock out with the best of them. Never mind that the real-life Borden was believed to be homely and less-than-bright: Here she’s a redheaded firecracker in a turquoise dress with an ax (heh) to grind. She may still be deranged, but she’s got good motive for hacking her father and stepmother to bits.
In the style of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or Spring Awakening, Lizzie mashes together period and modern ingredients to tell the story of one of America’s most infamous women. Lizzie’s attempts at narrative-building and character development prove mostly thin, but its punk- and metal-inspired songs, with lyrics that draw from actual dialogue during Borden’s 1892 trial in Fall River, Mass., are delicious and loud. From the savage numbers to the slower, hymnlike ballads, they’re a counterintuitive blend of camp, gore, profanity and tenderness.
Versions of Lizzie date back to 1990, but this production—with music by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt, and lyrics by Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner—is getting its premiere at Portland Center Stage. Director Rose Riordan stages Lizzie with plenty of rock-concert flourishes. The cast of four whip hand mics out of their pockets, take every confrontational power stance possible, unleash primordial wails a la Led Zeppelin and seductively caress the onstage scaffolding. That scaffolding quite obviously recalls prison bars, and as in Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango,” Borden’s victims had it coming: The show makes Lizzie’s father out to be a sexually abusive miser who prioritized his second wife over his daughters. “He let us go, she runs the show,” sing Lizzie and her sister Emma. (Andrew Borden was indeed a tightfisted undertaker, but there’s scant evidence he molested either daughter.) Their stepmother, like all stepmothers of legend, was simply evil.
But Lizzie’s backstory doesn’t stop there: The show also imagines a lesbian relationship between Lizzie and her neighbor Alice. Perhaps that felt edgy in the 1990 version, a radical contribution to the era’s queer politics, but here it plays out sans passion or tension. (It also has no grounding in historical fact.) Here’s the thing, though: As much as a liberal-arts student might gleefully “problematize” the liberties that Lizzie takes, as a vehicle for a powerful quartet of women to belt out anthems of rebellion and retribution, it’s pretty damn fun.
Mary Kate Morrissey plays a captivating Lizzie. Like a marionette operated by a diabolical puppeteer, she jerks her body around and bugs out her eyes, especially during the bone-rattling “Somebody Will Do Something,” which co-stars a blood-spewing hatchet. At another point, surrounded by decapitated pigeons—Ozzy Osbourne’s notorious bat incident comes to mind—and her hands covered in blood like a New England Lady Macbeth, she throws her arms out to her sides like a crucifix.
Matching Morrissey is Carrie Cimma as Bridget, the Bordens’ Irish maid. Cimma won a Drama Desk Award in 2010 for playing the same character in New York City, and here she’s a boiling cauldron of resentment, vanity and mischievousness, with high kicks to rival David Lee Roth’s. Some speculate that Bridget did the nasty deed. As played by Cimma, I certainly wouldn’t mess with her.
SEE IT: Lizzie is at Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Saturdays-Sundays and noon Thursdays through June 29. $38-$72.