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A CurtainUp Review
By David Lohrey
David P. Gordon's stunning, witty, cunning set goes a long way toward making this musical work for an audience that may at times feel put off by the material. Sondheim never celebrates the weird justification offered by these assassins, but he doesn't quite condemn them either. From the Proprirtor's (Jay Pierce) opening song "Everybody's Got the Right," we sense that Sondheim is trying to give voice to those whom most Americans would be inclined to write off as a bunch of losers.
We meet the cast of characters, an odd assortment of Presidential assassins. To begin there's the angry, articulate John Wilkes Booth, played with gusto by Jeffrey Coon. After Booth, who we see as a man possessing a political rather than a personal grievance against Lincoln, we are introduced to less-known figures: McKinley's assassin Leon Czolgosz (Christopher Patrick Mullen); Charles Guiteau (James Sugg), the assassin of President Garfield; and the failed assassin of FDR, Guiseppe Zangara (Jim Poulos).
The role of the Balladeer (Ben Dibble) functions as a kind of MC to the "entertainment," as the assassins are introduced and given their due. Later, the Balladeer takes on the role of American second most-notorious assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Dibble does a fine job in both roles, although each presents very different kinds of demands. The Balladeer is all-American flamboyant, while Oswald is played as an introvert.
The parts of Czogosz and Zangara seem underwritten, while that of Guiteau is given full reign, especially in the wonderfully staged "Ballad of Guiteau." James Sugg is simply stupendous as the deranged egomaniac who killed Garfield because he was refused an ambassadorship. Bug-eyed and arms flailing, Sugg is a human stick of dynamic. His grand climb to the gallows is strangely moving. (Here as elsewhere the use of projections has real dramatic purpose. Unlike those productions where slides simply serve as background, they punctuate the action and elicit audience reaction.)
The entire cast is on every second of this intermission-less show: Erin Brueggermann who plays "Squeaky" Fromme. . . Mary Martello (President Ford's would-be assassin, Sara Jane Moore). . ., Scott Greer as Samuel Byck who plotted against Nixon. All do a great job of conveying that "voice" of modern psychosis. Unlike the 19th century assassins, they seem to have been strangers to reality rather than political anarchists or rebels. Byck is very convincing as the lone-gunman type killer we've become familiar with in our time. Brueggermann and Martello are alternatively hilarious and creepy in the wonderfully witty scene that brings us about as close as any one of us cares to get to madness.
"Unworthy of Your Love," Sondheim's ode to estrangement, is sung by the two star-crossed assassins, "Squeaky" Fromme, and John Hinkley (Timothy Hill), who shot President Reagan in an attempt to attract Jodie Foster's attention. Sondheim's score mixes numerous musical genres, taking us across American musical history from contemporary pop sounds to those of traditional marching bands.
Nolen directs with confidence and style. The orchestra, although hidden from view, does its job effectively. This production has so much going for it; one is at a loss to think of any complaints. There is not a slack moment. The actors strut and stride about the stage, singing their hearts out. Each fully inhabits his or her strident, often desperate character. If the audience is left shaking its collective head, it is only because the material is often too much to bear.
Editor's Note: The show has had revivals in summer stock Assassins in the Berkshires), on the West Coast (Assassins in LA) and on Broadway. The Broadway 2004 review includes a song list and also background notes on the various chracters.
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