A musical based on the murder trial of Lizzie Borden in the last years of the 19th century would seem to be an intriguing idea. After all, everyone is familiar with the jump-rope 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.”

Playwright Katrina Wood, who wrote the book, the lyrics, and the music for this production, titled it “Spindle City” in recognition of the fact that Fall River, Massachusetts, where the story takes place, was a town that boasted the largest number of textile mills of any town in America.

Lizzie’s father, Andrew Jackson Borden (Chas Mitchell), who heads one of the “seven richest families” in Fall River, owns the Ferry Road Mill and a thriving funeral home. A notorious penny-pincher, he surreptitiously cuts off the feet and legs of his taller corpses so that they will fit into a child-size coffin, which costs him considerably less than a full-sized one. He then declaims his prosperity in a celebratory song called “The Midas Touch.”

His daughter Lizzie, on the other hand, is an idealistic young woman who teaches Sunday school to the children of immigrants and fights to keep them from being carted off to work in the mills at a disgracefully early age. Slightly demented and often confused, Lizzie exhibits little twitches and behavioral quirks which actor Emily Bridges delivers with innocent aplomb. She also delivers many of the production’s songs in a voice that ranges from beautifully strong and operatic to a little quavery and unsure. But that’s because the music and lyrics provided by Katrina Wood are also a little quavery and unsure. And mostly unmemorable.

Like Cinderella, Lizzie has a wicked stepmother who torments her at every opportunity. Andrew married her after Lizzie and her sister Emma’s mother died, and the new wife, Abby (Jazmine Ramay), is intensely competitive with Lizzie for Andrew’s affection. In a flamboyant flamenco outburst she sings a prophetic song, “She’ll Get Away With Murder,” which is one of the livelier performances in the show.

One of the major dramatic episodes, in addition to the Borden murders, is a fire in the mill that traps and kills a number of workers, including some of the children that work there. The playwright is possibly referencing The Great Fire of 1843, which took place 17 years before Lizzie was born, but its trauma lasted well into the next century.

“Spindle City,” directed by Trace Oakley, has a cast of 17, with several actors playing multiple roles. These include mill workers, participants in a strike, the prosecuting and defense attorneys and the judge in the all-too-brief trial in which the jury acquits Lizzie of the two murders after deliberating for only an hour and a half.

There is also an irrelevant subplot in which Lizzie presumably falls into a lesbian relationship with a flirtatious Broadway star played coquettishly by Kristin Towers-Rowles. Towers-Rowles’ real-life daughter, Makayla Rowles is one of the three delightful children taught by Lizzie and then carted off to work in the mills. The other two are Alex Jebb-Quine and Christian Simon, and the three of them singing and dancing together is a highlight of the show.

With so much going on, the play holds your attention but leaves you somewhat unsatisfied in the end. There are too many songs that sound alike and the recorded accompaniment is many decibels too loud. Moreover, the choreography looks like it was designed for people who can’t dance. Except for the opening number, “Fall River, Massachusetts”, which would be a hit in any Broadway musical.

While “Spindle City” is meant to examine the behaviors and mores of the time, and to explore the character of its young murderess, the real story of the crime, the sloppiness of the investigators, the ignored clues, the bias of the presiding judge, and the long, sad ostracism of Lizzie by the Fall River community, which lasted for the rest of her life, makes for a decidedly more coherent and exciting drama. But maybe not a musical.

“Spindle City” is having its world premiere engagement currently at the Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood. The show times are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 through Nov. 5. For tickets, call (323) 960-7780.

by Cynthia Citron