Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Suki Peters
The November Theater Company
September 26, 2014
Presidential assassins seem like strange subjects for a musical, as individuals or as a group, but Stephen Sondheim is known for his unusual concepts. Sondheim’s darkly satiric Assassins is a bold choice for the brand new November Theater Company as their first entry into the St. Louis theatre scene, and it’s proven to have been a successful one. With a strong cast full of local talent, strong direction and a consistent visual theme, this production makes for a memorable debut performance from this new company.
Sondheim and book writer John Weidman have chosen to handle their subject matter in a starkly satirical manner. The satire is broad and dark, with a rougues’ gallery of Presidential assassins and attempted assassins presented as patrons of an old-fashioned carnival, where the Proprieter (Jon Hey) is handing out guns and issuing a challenge–who wants to kill a President? A wide range of infamous historical figures take up the challenge and enter the “shooting gallery”, with successful attempts being greeted with a large graphic that reads “Winner!” We are introduced to a range of characters, from household names to historical footnotes, as each gets their story told with varying degrees of embellishment. There is a whole lot of dramatic license here, as characters who never could have met are portrayed as interacting and, in one case–that of would-be Gerald Ford assassins Sara Jane Moore (Jessica Townes) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Jennifer Theby Quinn)–shown as actually working together when in fact their attempts were unrelated. All the historical license is done in the name of satire, and for the most part, it works. There’s also the Balladeer (Charlie Barron), who provides additional commentary on the lives of some of the characters and narrates some of the action, directly challenging the motives of John Wilkes Boooth (Mike Amoroso) and others. With all the characters being rather broadly portrayed, the musical gives the audience a glimpse into the lives of these people and the circumstances that drove them individually to choose such a drastic and terrible act.
Overall, I would say this show is an examination and a satire, but it is in no way a glorification of the assassins or the acts portrayed here. The assassins are displayed with their most obvious flaws on clear display–from egotism to varying degrees of fanaticism and delusion–although there is also some thought-provoking commentary about the ever-elusive “American Dream”. The dreadful impact of these acts on the general public is shown with much clarity especially in the show’s penultimate number–the deeply effective “Something Just Brooke”, in which various ensemble members recount stories of everyday people and how they were effected by the Kennedy assassination and others.
The cast here is large and, for the most part, ideal, with strong singing and acting. Actually, although there are some great musical moments, some of the most memorable scenes are the non-singing ones, such as attempted Nixon assassin Sam Byck’s (Patrick Blindauer) bitterly comic monologues in which he recounts his disillusionment with life in tape-recorded letters to luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein and Nixon himself. Blindauer is a strong presence as the embittered, Santa suit-clad Byck, with excellent comic timing and a great deal of attitude. Also strong are the scenes between Townes as the scatterbrained Moore and Theby Quinn as enthralled Charles Manson devotee Fromme, with very strong comic performances from both. Theby Quinn also has a memorable moment in her duet with Nate Cummings as a particularly nerdy, simpering Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley. Both performers shine singing Sondheim’s jarringly ironic “Unworthy of Your Love”–a beautifully melodic tune with disturbing lyrics about romantic obsession and the extreme lengths it drives some people to. Other strong performances come from Barron, with his strong tenor voice, as the Balladeer; Nick Kelly as the the disillusioned and disturbed McKinley assassin Leon Czoglosz; Patrick Kelly as the gleefully fanatical and vainglorious Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau; Amoroso as the theatrical, egotistical Booth, who becomes something of a ringleader for the assassins; and Hey, bringing attitude and presence to the role of Proprietor.
Visually, this production is consistent and striking, with Jason Townes’ multilevel set, Bob Singleton’s projections, Russell waning’s lighting design setting the mood, along with the excellent character-specific costumes by Meredith LaBounty. There were some noticeable issues with sound on opening night, though, from failed microphones to feedback, although these were relatively minor and I’m sure they will be dealt with as the production continues. Overall, the old-time carnival atmosphere is maintained with admirable detail, with a memorable shift in mood and focus in the climactic scene late in Act 2, achieved with a very simple scene adjustment.
As both a major Sondheim fan and a Presidential history buff, I was particularly interested in seeing this production. Although I had heard the original cast recording, I had never actually seen Assassins on stage before, and I’m glad that I got to see such a strong production. The tone of this show ranges from the ridiculously comic to the frighteningly disturbing, and director Suki Peters and her top-notch cast have presented the material in a memorable and proficient way. It’s compelling, challenging theatre from an extremely promising new company.