Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman

I apologize for the short length of this post. I have been fairly swamped at the office the last few weeks - which is good - I have to work to pay the bills - but it has made blogging a bit harder.

Let me also start off by recognizing the supporting cast of Assassins. Katelyn Evans, Victoria Lusk, Eric Miranda, Victoria Olmos, Eric Tolley, and Salvador Viduarri, Kelsey Morrow, Stephen Bush, Bobby Gamez, Salvador Vidaurri, Daniel Korth: you guys and gals were great. (After my last Empty Space review, I was reminded of my omission of a few smaller - but crucial - parts. Yep, everybody makes a production work, not just the leads.)

I wasn’t even remotely familiar with Assassins before The Empty Space announced it for this season. A musical about presidential assassins? But, Stephen Sondheim, right? So I knew I had to see it.

Assassins is a humorous look at the men and women who assassinated - or at least attempted to assassinate - the President of the United States. The musical isn’t particularly serious. After all, the opening and closing number opines that “everbody’s got the right to be happy.” And if you aren’t, well, have you tried killing the President? TES staged it with a carnival theme. “Shoot a President, win a prize!” But there is a more serious set of themes under the silly surface. The assassins and would-be assassins were a microcosm of their times, specifically the anxieties and neuroses of the times. They were the marginalized, the beaten down, the outcasts, who, for their own reasons, decided the cure was murder. Sorry, “assassination,” not just a pathetic “murder.” The problem is, while their names in some cases might be remembered now, they did nothing to fix the problems that troubled them - and in some cases had the opposite effect.

Some of the names will be household names: everyone knows John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. Those of us who came of age during the 1980s will remember John Hinckley Jr. But how many could name Leon Czolgosz, let alone spell his name without looking it up? Who did he shoot at? Did he succeed? How about Giuseppe Zangara? Samuel Byck? Charles Guiteau? Sara Jane Moore? Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme? Okay, the last one might be more familiar because of her connection to Charles Manson.

I am probably slightly more than average when it comes to familiarity. In part, because I read about weird stuff all the time. But also because Czolgosz made it into a book on neuroscience, while Guiteau’s assassination of James Garfield was the topic of an outstanding book.

I don’t have time to get into all of the stories here, but Sondheim and Weidman don’t take too many artistic liberties with the facts. They are, of course, presented in an entirely different light. The president is off stage in many cases (although Daniel Korth makes appearances as McKinley and Reagan), and things are simplified a bit.

I want to mention just a few specifics here. Kyle Ken Gaines as John Wilkes Booth was excellent as usual. Just a great voice and stage presence. Also front and center was Alex Mitts as both the narrator (singing snarky songs about the assassins) and Lee Harvey Oswald. Perrin Swanson is no relation, although we share the same last name. He also works for the local yarn shop owned by local thespian Ronnie Warren, so my wife knows him. His turn as John Hinckley Jr. was appropriately pathetic and sad. Al Gains was hilarious as Guiteau - convinced he should be ambassador to France and always selling his book. Finally, Sondheim and Weidman decided to combine Moore and Fromme into one plot. The two of them (independently) attempted to kill Gerald Ford a few weeks apart. Neither was particularly competent. In this play, Moore is played as a total ditz, while Fromme is freaky, creepy, and drugged out. This eventually leads to some funny lines. “You brought your dog to an assassination?” “You brought your KID to an assassination?!” Abby Bowles-Votaw as Moore and the always-outstanding Nancee Steiger as Fromme have great chemistry, and these scenes were riveting. I am still creeped out by Steiger’s stare. Yikes.

Again, sorry this is short. It was fun. Thanks for doing it, TES. See you next time...  

 Perrin Swanson as John Hinckley Jr. 

 Alex Mitts as the Balladeer

 Nancee Steiger as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme

 Al Gaines as Charles Guiteau

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