Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: Spindle City, a Disappointing Tale of a Fascinating Legend

Emily Bridges and Rowan Treadway. All photos by Rick Rose.

Did she or didn’t she? To this day, no one knows for sure. In 1893, Lizzie Borden was tried for the murders of her father and stepmother in one of the most famous unsolved cases in history. When Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby were found savagely bludgeoned to death inside the family home nearly a year earlier, Lizzie was the prime suspect. She was acquitted after a two week trial but inconsistencies in her story led many to doubt her innocence. Still, no other suspect was ever accused.

In the years since, the public’s fascination with the case has only grown, spawning a profusion of books, movies, and songs, the most famous of which is the children’s nursery rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.” It is a haunting refrain especially when set to music.

Katrina Wood is the latest writer to explore the Fall River, Massachusetts tragedy in her new musical Spindle City, a fictional account of what might have caused Lizzie to commit the murders. Here Lizzie (Emily Bridges) is portrayed as a schoolteacher whose mission is to protect her poor students from being taken away to work in the mills.

L-R: Bianca Vanderhorst, Sarah Hoback, Kristin Towers-Rowles and Emily Bridges

She has a sleazy uncle (Rick Simone), determined to marry her for the Borden fortune and a male friend (Rowan Treadway) who is secretly in love with her. When her timid sister (Sarah Hoback) introduces her to Nance O’Neil (Kristin Towers-Rowles) a New York actress, there is an immediate attraction. A relationship develops but eventually ends in disappointment. We are to believe that all of this contributes to an eventual breakdown resulting in the bloody deaths of her overbearing father (Chas Mitchell) and antagonistic stepmother (Jazmine Ramay).

But where history makes it unclear whether she did the deeds or not, this story directed by Trace Oakley, has already decided that Lizzie is mentally unbalanced, justified in her actions, and guilty. Whether by design or direction, it is a misfire to rob the audience of the mystery. Doing so undermines the fundamental allure of the story, especially since Wood has not settled on a consistent storytelling approach.

Initially it appears that the show is going to be a tongue-in-cheek parody musical as downtrodden millworkers burst into bright bouncy Broadway choreography. While the contrast elicits many laughs, the show does not follow through on this set-up and instead alternates between doom-and-gloom drama and campy Victorian melodrama accompanied by a confusing array of musical numbers that never come together to create a cohesive whole.

The score is a mish-mash of styles that includes everything from a country square dance, parlor songs, and vaudeville to ‘70s disco, an orchestral piece, and what sounds like 1980’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, complete with his signature synthesizers (which makes one wonder how long this musical has been in development). The pre-recorded instrumental tracks (arrangements by Art Wood and Ken Rarick) also contain passages of strange underscoring that have no connection to the dialogue. Add it all together and musically it simply doesn’t make sense.

L-R: Chas Mitchell, Sarah Hoback, Bianca Vanderhorst, Jazmine Ramay
 and Rick Simone

Neither does Averi Yoreks choreography, which has little to do with the story and in some cases interferes with what is happening among the principle characters. During the mill fire, the ensemble forms a stylized bucket brigade, then stops and exits, only to return hesitantly in the background of the scene several minutes later and continue. The transition is so out of place that it felt as if someone had made the wrong entrance and the cast was going back to do it all over again.

Likewise, a story song sung by Ramay is choreographed as a tango but has nothing to do with the dialogue in the scene, regardless of the fact that it is well-executed by the actress. And though she sheds no clothes, Towers-Rowles’ stage number, with mirror in hand, looks and sounds like a disingenuous stripper’s lounge act. As director, Oakley bears the responsibility of pulling the show’s disparate pieces together but the decisions he makes are downright puzzling as he reduces the characters to unfortunate stereotypes.

Kristin Towers-Rowles

Skylar Johnson’s lighting adds an appropriately eerie tone to the production and Aaron Glazer’s creepy set design has a number of unexplained oddities that set up the story quite nicely. It’s unfortunate that some of those touches, such as a staircase going nowhere with what, at first glance, looks like a finger sitting on an upper step, aren’t at all integrated into the story. Still, Id like to see the story that goes with his intriguing set design and its offbeat color palette, period details, and miniature city skyline. Now that would be a mystery worth solving.

As it is, Spindle City needs more work before it can live up to the fascinating tale of the real Lizzie Borden. In the meantime, there is always the next TV movie or film reinvention to look forward to.

James J. Cox, Paul Wong and Emily Bridges

SPINDLE CITY: The Lizzie Borden Musical
October 13 – November 5, 2016
Secret Rose Theatre
11246 Magnolia Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Tickets: (323) 960-7780 or 
Regular show times: Fri. at 8pm, Sat. at 3pm and 8pm, Sun. at 3pm. Special Halloween show on Monday, Oct. 31 at 8pm (period costumes encouraged- Fake Axes for sale in the foyer.)
More info:

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