A rock-and-roll musical about the infamous Lizzie Borden true crime story

"Lizzie" is on stage through July 24 at Actor's Express. (Courtesy of: Actor's Express)

There’s an old jump rope rhyme that goes, “Lizzie Borden took an axe / She gave her mother 40 whacks / After she saw what she had done / She gave her father 41.” Pretty creepy, right?

The chilling history behind that rhyme forms the backdrop for a new production at Actor’s Express Theatre Company, “Lizzie,” which explores the unsolved murders of Abby and Andrew Borden in 1892. The rock ’n roll musical is based on true events and asks the question, “Was Lizzie Borden a coldblooded killer or a victim of the Victorian patriarchy?”

“City Lights” senior producer Kim Drobes was joined by actor Jasmine Renee Ellis, who portrays Lizzie Borden, and director Jennifer Alice Acker. 

Interview highlights follow below.

One of America’s most famous true crime legends:

“At this point, she’s become American mythology, but she was a woman in Fall River, Massachusetts, accused and tried for brutally murdering her father and stepmother and was acquitted. “She got off,” Acker said. “So it’s a fascinating tale. It’s full of intrigue, and it’s stayed in the zeitgeist because there is something so horrific, of course, about murder in general, but cold-blood murder of parents. It’s an original American true crime story. So for all our true crime fans, this one’s for you.” 

Women pushed to the limit in Victorian America:

“I always thought Lizzie Borden was a young woman,” said Acker. “She was 32. Her sister was older than that… These are adult women who are so imprisoned by their circumstances that something has gotta give. The kettle boils over. So it’s a fascinating lens and landscape through which to explore themes of oppression, patriarchy and human nature. It’s a rock opera. I thought we were going to have a good time and swing some axes and get some gore. But what is really striking about the play is how much heart and humanity it has… [Lizzie] becomes a tragic Greek heroine by the end of the show.” 

“Women had no rights to property, finances, et cetera, and their father ends up rewriting the will and putting everything in the stepmother’s name. So essentially, these two adult daughters who are unmarried are going to become completely destitute, is their fear; and there is also some historical belief that Lizzy Borden was sexually assaulted by her father,” Acker explained. “We have these incredibly heartbreaking circumstances, and our heroine Lizzy, she disassociates about as much as she can, but when the will drops, and the reality that there’s no future for them, her and her sister devise a plan.”

Actor Jasmine Renee Ellis on playing Lizzie:

“Getting the role of Lizzie, it was, I don’t wanna use the word, ‘easy’, but it wasn’t as difficult to relate to her – to her frustrations, to her need to just let her voice be heard getting out of a unfortunate situation – and so mostly, my biggest challenge is not going too far in, honestly,” said Ellis. “There are a lot of things in my own personal life that I can drop into, and my challenge is, ‘Jasmine, don’t go too far, ‘cause you’re still performing. You can’t completely check out; you have to stay in and still tell the story with integrity.’”

She added, “One of the hardest things is realizing the freedom once Lizzie has freed herself of her circumstances, allowing myself, the actor, to be as free as Lizzie is. I’m still working those kinks out. I’m still trying to figure out what the barrier is about. Why Jasmine can’t just be free like Lizzie is free? And I think that kind of speaks to my own place in the world right now.”

The rock opera musical “Lizzie” is on stage at Actor’s Express July 9 – 24. Tickets and more information are available at https://actors-express.com/play-page-lizzie/.