Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's new collaboration Elizabeth Cree gains verve and a dose of humanity when the Victorian murder mystery shifts from the trial of its titular character and recollection of her abusive childhood to a London music hall. The theatre is where the wayward Lizzie discovered a sympathetic group of performers – notably Dan Leno, of historical fame – and became part of their virtual family. As overarching metaphors, the theatre and performance aptly frame a tale in which Lizzie and John Cree, an unsuccessful but wealthy theatre critic/writer, imagine and enact lives beyond those of a seemingly respectable married couple.

Richard Troxell (Dan Leno) and Katherine Pracht (Elizabeth Cree) © Evan Hanover
Richard Troxell (Dan Leno) and Katherine Pracht (Elizabeth Cree)
© Evan Hanover

Campbell's text deftly juggles various timelines (as does Peter Akroyd's book, which inspired this musical treatment), with the context of a series of murders and the poisoning of John Cree only gradually filling in. Leaning towards musical theatre in style, which suits the music hall background, Puts effectively shapes the time-traveling structure with distinctive sound worlds as thirty dramatic vignettes unfold across a little more than an hour and a half.

We first meet Leno performing the cross-dressing role of Bluebeard's housekeeper, with the outstanding tenor Richard Troxell fully inhabiting the role, dialect and all. Leno's willingness to care for Lizzie reveals his big heart, but more significant is his commitment to entertaining his audiences, many of whom we imagine lead bleak, fear-marked lives outside the theatre. Leno's embodiment of resilience in times of adversity resonates poignantly.

Katherine Pracht, Quinn Middleman (Doris), Uncle (David Govertsen), Richard Troxell (Dan Leno) © Evan Hanover
Katherine Pracht, Quinn Middleman (Doris), Uncle (David Govertsen), Richard Troxell (Dan Leno)
© Evan Hanover

The hodgepodge troupe is capably fleshed out by the ventriloquist "Uncle" (David Govertsen), wire-walking Doris (Quinn Middleman), magician Little Victor (Jason Ferrante) and warbling singer Aveline Mortimer (Stacey Tappan). Mortimer, however, exhibits a weakness to which Lizzie and others (but not, ironically, Leno) will fall prey: the quest for lasting fame. Lizzie's stage debut replacing Mortimer garners approval and her first taste of power. Thirsting for more, she tries a cross-dressing role – a smartly dressed but bloody Butcher – that she begins wearing confidently out alone in London, at night, affording her freedom and anonymity. The blurred lines between art and life grow denser as the piece unfolds.

Katherine Pracht (Elizabeth Cree) and Jonathan Weyant (Priest) © Evan Hanover
Katherine Pracht (Elizabeth Cree) and Jonathan Weyant (Priest)
© Evan Hanover

Mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht navigates Lizzie's transformation from misfit to mastermind with disturbing focus, her range of vocal colors occasionally hinting she might be unhinged. What the truth is concerning her nighttime excursions is, however, purposefully camouflaged. In three separate brilliantly conceived and executed letter-writing scenes we see (through silhouette projections and handwriting in progress) John Cree document with satisfaction his murder of a prostitute (sung by Jane Quig), Solomon Weill (Samuel Wiser), and an entire family. Christopher Burchett's hungry look, combined with his penetrating baritone and the unsettling conviction with which he proclaims to redeem his victims from a cruel world by disemboweling them, is convincing. But we also know John Cree to be a loner lacking confidence, as his most awkward of marriage proposals reveals, equally convincingly performed by Burchett. Only late in the game is the authorship of his damning diary questioned.

The murders bear links to the British Museum's Reading Room, a setting where we encounter Karl Marx, sung by Zacharias Niedzwiecki, and the historical writer George Gissing, also sung by Wiser. The Hebrew scholar Weill had worked at the Reading Room alongside John Cree, where the latter endeavored to write an autobiographical play titled Misery Junction, about his unhappy marriage, which Cree hoped would make his name. The murder of the Marr family a century earlier is meanwhile the subject of a book that Cree had on loan. The production's last scene in this setting, with John's place empty and Elizabeth returning his loaned books, was the one moment I felt the piece went dramaturgically adrift, and for me the glass harmonica's otherworldly timbre seemed off the mark.

Christopher Burchett (John Cree) © Evan Hanover
Christopher Burchett (John Cree)
© Evan Hanover

Even Inspector Kildare, persuasively sung by Levi Hernandez, is preoccupied with the limelight, delighting at press coverage of the murder investigation as much as John Cree. The slightly caricatured rendering of the police and judicial systems and occasional other lighter touches lend necessary balance to the murderous subject matter. Characters are sometimes expected to perform "poorly," to comic effect. Broader ironic strokes take the comedy in darker directions. Elizabeth lures Mortimer, opulently sung by soprano Stacey Tappen, into service in her home. Following the Crees' deaths, Mortimer adapts and mounts John's unfinished play, enacting Elizabeth's life and death herself.

Kudos to Chicago Opera Theater and Opera Philadelphia for bringing together a crackerjack creative team for this shared co-production, including David Schweizer (stage direction), David Zinn (sets and costumes), and Alexander Nichols (lighting/projections). Their tight coordination yields versatile, inventive solutions to the many scene changes and dramatic environments, and deserves to reach more stages. Zinn's extraordinary costumes warrant special mention for helping to keep the world of theatre and the act of performance foregrounded, beyond uniting the music hall performers as a family of misfits, but a family nonetheless.

****1