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Dana Pellebon’s on a roll.
Over the course of the past year and half, the local producer/director has directed some of the most thought-provoking and well-acted productions the Bartell Theatre has staged. Her string includes “Mauritius,” a taut play about stamp-collecting (yes, stamp collecting) and this past season’s riveting productions of “Detroit ’67” and “The Whipping Man,” plays about racial tensions and slavery, respectively.
In a few weeks, she’ll unveil her latest project: She’s directing Music Theatre of Madison’s production of “Lizzie,” a rock musical about the infamous, alleged ax-swinging murderer Lizzie Borden. The show features an all-female cast that includes MTM executive director Meghan Randolph, Liz Griffith, Erin McConnell and Kelsey Anne Johnson.
“For me, the basic thing is, do I like the story?’ says Pellebon when she’s asked about how she picks her projects. “I don’t have to like the characters, but I do have to like the story.”
In the case of “Lizzie,” Pellebon says she’s liked the story since she was a child. But the show is attractive to her for multiple reasons that go beyond the lurid details of Borden’s alleged crime and spectacle-riddled murder trial. (Did you know Borden was actually acquitted, despite massive amounts of circumstantial evidence? The court of public opinion, however, delivered a drastically different verdict.)
“It’s fascinating how women were treated in the justice system in that era,” she says. (Borden was put on trial in 1892.) “Especially for women of wealth and status, it was unheard of for a case involving a woman of stature to go to trial.”
Through its rock-centric songbook, “Lizzie” dives much deeper into Borden’s story, tackling such issues as sexual abuse, homosexuality and mental illness—factors that could have had an influence on Borden’s state of mind and motivation.
“These things aren’t expressed or explained when her story is typically told,” Pellebon says.
Pellebon’s especially excited about the costumes Jenni Ladd has cooked up for the show. Their inspiration comes from the ‘70s underground punk scene—which may help explain why Erin McConnell’s character, Bridget Sullivan, bears a resemblance to Siouxsie Sioux, lead singer of the English rock band Siouxsie and the Banshees.
“We didn’t want to go burlesque with this,” Pellebon. “There are no corsets.”
There’s also no elaborate set. While the six-piece rock band will share the space with the actors in the Wisconsin Union’s Frederic March Play Circle, beyond that, there’s a scrim, a platform and three chairs.
“That’s not to say we won’t have some cool-ass visuals,” Pellebon quips. “Everything I’ve seen and heard about other performances of this musical has been fantastical. The simplicity of the story gets lost in big things that are just there to be big.”
Even though she’s not a fan of traditional musicals—“I’m more of an ironic musical person,” she says—her next project also falls squarely in the genre. Next March she’ll put on “Rock of Ages,” the 2005 musical send up to the glam rock of the bombastic ’80s. (Trust us: “Glee” is not the only entertainment product to successfully incorporate Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’”) Then there’s her musical dream: bringing David Bowie’s musical “Lazarus” to Madison.
The way she’s been going, we’re not betting against her.
“Lizzie” runs from August 17-26 in the Fredric March Play Circle, located on the second floor of the Wisconsin Union. For ticket information, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.