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Assassins
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Bradley Rohlf
FlyNorth Theatricals
July 1, 2022

Eli Borwick, Sarah Lantzberger, Eileen Engel, Jaymeson Hintz
Photo by John Gramlich
Fly North Theatricals

It’s Assassins, but (mostly) immersive! That’s essentially the idea of Fly North Theatricals’ latest production of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical study of various individuals who have sought out to assassinate Presidents of the United States, with varying degrees of “success”. I put that word in quotes because of the inherently problematic and disturbing nature of the goal, which is pointed out in chilling fashion in this cleverly staged production, which features a contextualization that adds a degree of immediacy to the show that contributes much to the overall dramatic effect. 

Assassins is a show that blends sharp satire with social commentary and moments of intense drama. It profiles various would-be presidential assassins, some well-known and some more obscure, but they are not glorified here, although there is criticism of the societal and cultural values and situations that influenced them. The tone is satirical for the most part, but this production in particular brings out a degree of immediacy in the sense of how the show is framed. While most productions of this show have the backdrop of a carnival/fair shooting gallery attraction, this production is set up as a panel discussion at a convention called “PresCon 2022”. Each audience member is given a lanyard with a badge, identifying each attendee as “President”. The pre-show activities are a combination of hilarious and disturbing, such as autograph sessions with John Wilkes Booth (Jordan Wolk), a projected schedule of events that includes some clever topical and historical references, and more. Then the show starts and all the “presidents” settle down to watch the “panel”.  For a closer look at the pre-show activities and a lists of the various “schedules of events”, you can check out Fly North’s Facebook page

Although the show is advertised as “fully immersive”, it’s most immersive elements are before the actual play begins, and then it plays out as written, only with a different set than usual, and with the Proprietor (Eileen Engel) outfitted in professional attire and serving essentially as the host of the panel. The assassins and aspiring assassins are presented and begin to tell their tales. In addition to Booth, we meet Leon Czolgosz (Eli Borwick), Charles Guiteau (Bradford Rolen), Sarah Jane Moore (Kimmie Kidd-Booker), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Avery Lux), John Hinckley (Jaymeson Hintz), Giuseppe Zangara (Ryan P. Townsend), Sam Byck (Sarah Lantsberger), and Lee Harvey Oswald (Stephen Henley).  The characters and their motives are varied, but the ultimate goal is the same–to kill a president. There’s also social commentary in the form of a figure called The Balladeer (also Henley), who–aided by clever projections–clicks through his cell phone to show us background on the various figures and their situations. The stories are sometimes linked in ways they didn’t in real life–like with Fromme and Moore, who both tried to assassinate President Ford, but not together as shown here, and Fromme and Hinckley, whose disturbingly dissonant duet “Unworthy of Your Love” is one the show’s most memorable tunes. Of course, these characters are all from different times and places, but having them interact adds to the theme, drama, and satire of the piece. This particular production adds another layer to that drama, as well, casting the audience as “presidents”, which makes everyone a potential victim if you think about it. Also, the sharp dramatic turn the show takes toward the end adds even more tension and impact to the story, making it a lot more personal than I had seen before. I won’t spoil it, but I’ll give a clue–the guns used in the show are all obviously fake (mostly toys). There’s a rather jarring moment when that changes, which affects the whole tone of the show in a powerfully effecting way. 

The theming here is excellent and consistent, working well with this production, as the “PresCon” setting is played out especially well in the build up to the show itself, and Lauren Perry’s simple but effective set and clever media design adds to the overall effect. The colorful, character-appropriate costumes by Engel are also excellent, as is Tony Anselmo’s evocative lighting. Music Director Colin Healy leads a top-notch band that accompanies the show with style, as well, although the band’s placing and the acoustics in the .ZACK theatre sometimes work to make the music drown out the singers.

Aside from occasional sound issues, though, this is a strong production all around, led by a superb cast with no weak links. Engel has an oddly effective air of detached menace as the Proprietor, and Wolk’s prideful, vengeful Booth is also a standout, as is Lantsberger (who also briefly plays anarchist Emma Goldman) as the attention-seeking Byck, whose goal was to assassinate President Nixon. Lux and Kidd-Booker are memorable in their scenes together as Fromme and Moore, and Hintz is effective as the single-minded and disturbed Hinckley, as is Borwick as aspiring anarchist Czolgosz, who shot President McKinley. Rolen, as the gleefully self-promoting Guiteau (Garfield’s assassin), is a stand-out, as well, and Henley is in excellent voice as the Balladeer, and also makes a convincing Oswald. The whole cast is excellent here, with strong ensemble chemistry and strong stage presence, energy, and vocals. 

If you’ve seen Assassins before, you essentially know what to expect, but there are some surprises in this version, in terms of direction and focus, with a powerful turn toward the end that makes the story more personal than I’ve seen before. Fly North Theatricals has presented some memorable productions in the past, but I think this is their best yet. It’s a profoundly affecting theatrical experience. 

Jordan Wolk, Eli Borwick, Kimmie Kidd-Booker, Bradford Rolen
Photo by John Gramlich
FlyNorth Theatricals

Fly North Theatricals is presenting Assassins at the .ZACK Theatre until July 23, 2022

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Anything Goes
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Original Book by P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton, and Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
New Book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 22, 2015

Cast of Anything Goes Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Anything Goes
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

In a way, Anything Goes could well be called one of the orginal “jukebox musicals”. It’s been performed in various versions for decades, with many lyric, song, and book changes, and the plot, while entertaining, is fairly slight. The show exists, essentially, to be a showcase for the songs of celebrated 20th Century composer and lyricist Cole Porter. It’s a lively show with lots of silly comedy and spectacular dancing, and it’s currently being performed in top-notch fashion at STAGES St. Louis.

The story is somewhat silly, but entertaining nonetheless. It follows nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Julie Cardia) and friends on an ocean liner traveling between New York and London in the 1930s. Reno’s got something of a crush on her old friend, the handsome stockbroker Billy Crocker (Brent Michael DiRoma), but Billy’s newly smitten with young debutante Hope Harcourt (Heidi Giberson), who is sailing on the cruise with her mother (Kari Ely) with the aim of marrying rich English nobleman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Dan Fenaughty). Meanwhile, gangster Moonface Martin (Bob Amaral), “Public Enemy #13”, is on the run from the law, and boards the ship in preacher’s disguise, bringing his friend Erma (Laura E. Taylor) along.  What ensues is a comedy of love triangles and quadrangles, as well as mistaken identity, gambling, singing and a whole lot of dancing.

The plot isn’t really one that bears a lot of scrutiny. It’s really just a platform for the songs and some some hilariously goofy comedy. Despite the various script updates over the years, the show does still come across as slightly dated, and there are some unfortunate stereotypes that are played for laughs. Still, for the most part it’s a fun show, and the real focus is on those lovely Cole Porter songs and Stephen Bourneuf’s spectacular choreography and excellent ensemble dancing.

This is a very ensemble-dependent show, considering all the stylish dance-numbers and intricately performed choreography. The ensemble sparkles on on numbers like the tap-dance heavy “Anything Goes” and the truly showstopping “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” led by the big-voiced Cardia as Reno.  Cardia also displays a strong sense of comedy, working well opposite both the charming DiRoma as Billy, the hilariously shady Amaral as Mooonface, and the delightfully goofy and thoroughly winning Fenaughty as Lord Evelyn.  All of these performers show great comedy skills and excellent voices, especially DiRoma, who also shares delightful chemistry with Giberson, who is also in excellent voice as Hope.  There are also fun comic performances from the always excellent Reichert as Billy’s nearsighted boss Elisha Whitney, and Kari Ely as Hope’s mother, socialite Evangeline Harcourt.  Flack as the Captain, Brennan Caldwell as the Ship’s Purser, and Taylor as Erma also give memorable performances. It’s a very strong cast, from the leads to the ensemble, working together to bring life to the classic Porter score and a great deal of laughs to the audience.

The set, designed by James Wolk, is striking, colorful and versatile, creating a vibrant 1930’s atmosphere. There are also some marvelously detailed and stylish costumes by Brad Musgrove. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is effective and atmospheric, as well.

Ultimately, the point of Anything Goes is to entertain, and the production at STAGES does that well.  It’s a big, bold, stylish and energetic production that splendidly showcases the marvelous score and choreography. It’s also hilariously funny, with a decidedly silly sense of humor.  Despite a few drawbacks in the script, this is about as ideal a production of this show as I can imagine.

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Lousi

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Lousi

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Anything Goes is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 16th, 2015.

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Assassins
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Suki Peters
The November Theater Company
September 26, 2014

Cast of Assassins Photo by Katie Puglisi The November Theater Company

Cast of Assassins
Photo by Katie Puglisi
The November Theater Company

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 Broke”, 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.

Jessica Townes, Jennifer Theby Quinn Photo by Katie Puglisi The November Theater Company

Jessica Townes, Jennifer Theby Quinn
Photo by Katie Puglisi
The November Theater Company

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