REVIEW: 40 Whacks (Annoyance Theatre)

| June 24, 2010

Rich Girl Gone Bad—Really, Really Bad

 

   
Annoyance Theatre presents
    
40 Whacks
   
Book/Lyrics by Aggie Hewitt
Music/Lyrics by
Lisa McQueen
Directed by
Irene Marquette
at
Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway (map)
through August 6  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud (and, after the break, Barry Eitel)

Just who is Lizzie Borden to the average person today—a reclaimed feminist icon from the 19th-century or a poor little rich girl gone really, really bad? Lisa McQueen (music and lyrics) and Aggie Hewitt (book and lyrics) get to have it both ways with their masterful musical comedy 40 Whacks, now playing Fridays at the Annoyance Theatre. Truth to tell, Lizzie (Ellen Stoneking) wins audience applause at the end of the show because – after a wild ride of mayhem and mistrial – she gets away with it all.

Irene Marquette directs a cunning comidic cast, who lay it all on the line about the good ol’, bad ol’ days surrounding this murder, America’s sordid Gilded Age. Even if Lizzie is no feminist heroine—largely because the glass ceiling she bumps into is  about sharing part of her inheritance with her stepmother, Abby (Jennifer Estlin)—the show is, nevertheless, very conscious about the limitations women faced in the 1892, in and out of marriage. Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden (Noah Gregoropolous), gets thoroughly hosed in the script as the Borden family’s patriarchal douche bag. But Gregoropolous’s dry, deadpan pronouncements on women’s menstrual cycles and mental states make us wish he wasn’t off to see his maker so quickly.

What amazes most about this production is its restraint. Marquette has adhered to a little more class and period consciousness than one usually sees in Annoyance productions. Higher production values in scenic design and costuming, coupled with hints of ragtime in McQueen’s musical score, give the audience a stronger sense of old-timey mass murder–all the better with which to sail into the production’s more off-the-wall, anachronistic moments. After a steady diet of arsenic poisoning and a failed attempt at getting medical help, Abby starts to make Uncle John’s (Mike Maltz) bed on the second floor. We know that her mortal comeuppance at Lizzie’s hands is imminent. However, Abby still gets a glorious swansong before her demise, covering the Carpenters’ 1972 hit “I’ll say goodbye to love.”

That’s not the end to this show’s imaginative flights of fancy. The cast knows how to pour it on for Lizzie’s trial, which Lizzie gets to observe through nothing less than a court-ordered morphine haze. Maltz is charming as Uncle John Morse–what with his little crush on the family Irish maid Bridget (Chelsea Farmer)–but he really excels at delivering the trippy, whacked out opening remarks as the prosecuting attorney. Cristin McAlister, demurely spoiled and vindictive as Lizzie’s sister Emma, really gets to step out and shake it as Lizzie’s defense. Sherman Edwards, as the casual and celebrity conscious judge overseeing trial proceedings, seals the circus for what it is. “Will you be dignified and respectful of the court system?” he mildly asks of the audience before Lizzie arrives. His understated delivery already informs us we need not be.

What seals the deal for this show is its excellent music. There are times when the score strays into operetta territory and that’s when I begin to ask whether the producers have created something a little beyond Annoyance’s typical schlock comedy fare. 40 Whacks definitely delivers more sophistication, while keeping a light, crude touch to get across Lizzie’s overwhelming sense of entitlement. I, of course, am screaming for more and I hope Annoyance’s audiences will too.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  

 

* Review #2 after the fold *


Like Helen Keller, Lizzie Borden Still Funny

card-front

   
Annoyance Theatre presents
    
40 Whacks
   
Book/Lyrics by Aggie Hewitt
Music/Lyrics by
Lisa McQueen
Directed by
Irene Marquette
at
Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway (map)
through August 6  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

When thinking up subjects for a screwball musical extravaganza, it’s rare that one explores topics over a century old. Most of them have pretty clearly expired. The Spanish-American War. The Klondike Gold Rush. Thomas Edison. Not a whole lot of reliability.

Risking staleness didn’t daunt Annoyance Theatre in their decision to produce 40 Whacks, a musical focusing on Lizzie Borden, the infamous axe-wielder of patricide and nursery rhyme fame. Directed by Irene Marquette and with a book by Aggie Hewitt, this sketch-ish show bravely eschews contemporary-ness for Victorian-style laughs, and they no doubt came up with something that is as funny now as if it came out in the Gay Nineties.

In case you aren’t old enough to know how to cakewalk (or your mother never sang lullabies about murder), Lizzie Borden was convicted of brutally hacking apart her  father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden, in 1892. She was acquitted for lack of evidence, but found guilty in the court of public opinion. Her notoriety lives on in children’s rhymes (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/ And gave her mother 40 whacks…”), as well as operas and plays such as Lizzie Borden: A Tragedy in Two Axe (which, debatably, has the best title ever).

showposter40 Whacks doesn’t just sit in its late 19th-century time period. There’s plenty of updating going on. This Lizzie Borden (the vengeful Ellen Stoneking) speaks in modern parlance, using some choice words to describe her stepmother (Jennifer Estlin). Hewitt brings some deconstruction to the table as well. The courtroom scene spoofs such theatre heavyweights as Bob Fosse and Sophie Treadwell.

I wouldn’t say Annoyance has gone all socio-political on us, but we’re obviously looking at this tale through a feminist lens. This has its hits and misses. “It’s Great to be Men in the 1890s,” a duet between Lizzie’s father and uncle (Noah Gregoropolous and Mike Maltz, respectively), is probably the best song in the show. The tune is hilariously self-reflexive, blending just the right amounts of cleverness and stupidity. Other times the post-modern commentary is overwrought, e.g. the family’s constant berating of Abby.

There’s a fun, elementary-school-recital aesthetic to Lisa McQueen’s score, which features a single upright with a little synth thrown in for maximum cheesiness. However, even when putting up a parody musical that encourages heavy drinking, the cast still needs singing ability. While the cast here gets by, their lack of comfort with the music does distract. Stoneking fakes any unease well enough. But Cristin McAlister, who gives a Cabaret-style ditty as Lizzie’s lawyer, is visibly uncomfortable. So is Chelsea Farmer as the Borden’s maid. She sings her testimony in the style of Brecht/Weill (according to the program). As a Brecht fanboy, I couldn’t really hear Herr Alienation in the song, which wasn’t really funny nor compelling. McQueen’s music bounces past the occasional sour spots and keeps everything rolling along. And Estlin’s commanding ballad in act one deserves a mention for its Bonnie Tyler level of passion.

The cast seemed to be on-book for the second act, making me wonder if the piece was under-rehearsed. If this is the case, I’m guessing the whole musical will improve with future performances.

40 Whacks was my first experience with Annoyance and their so-bad-its-great mindset. This especially came across in a short improv segment, which was actually really fun in its open-mic night lameness. The show was a great introduction. Through the musical’s successes and duds, it remains quirky, fast-paced, and fun. Not many can mine humor from notorious murders of the 19th-Century, so Marquette, Hewitt, and cast should pat themselves on the back.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  
   
   

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Category: 2010 Reviews, Aggie Hewitt, Annoyance Theatre, Barry Eitel, Paige Listerud

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