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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 11, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 11
Assassins - Dead On!
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Assassins - Dead On!

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

ASSASSINS
ACT/5TH AVENUE
CO-PRODUCTION
ACT THEATRE
Through May 8


Assassins is a musical by the great impresario Stephen Sondheim. The highly acclaimed 'God of Musical Theater' composed the music and lyrics (with a book by John Weidman) with a nod to some darker chapters in American history: the assassinations (or attempted assassinations) of American Presidents. An unlikely subject for a musical but it is the show that Sondheim himself has called, 'the most perfect show' he's ever written.

The opening is a carnival shooting gallery where those that will attempt 'Presicide' (there is no official word for the killing of a President) gather to take their shot and get a prize. One-by-one the infamous figures of history - John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, Lynette Fromme, John Hinckley... - appear seduced by the chance of their 'shot at fame.' They come forth to present their sides, their reasoning and their excuses as to why they found their place in darker annals of American text books. Although there are several other would-be-assassinators, only the more 'notorious' are represented. As a brief rundown, here are the main characters (in chronological order) and against whom they made their mark:

o John Wilkes Booth - succeeding in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln

o Charles Guiteau - succeeding in the assassination of President James Garfield

o Leon Czolgosz - succeeding in the assassination of President William McKinley

o Giuseppe Zangara - attempted assassination of President-elect Franklin Roosevelt

o Lee Harvey Oswald - succeeding in the assassination of President John Kennedy

o Samuel Byck - attempted assassination of President Richard Nixon

o Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme - attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford

o Sara Jane Moore - attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford

o John Hinckley - attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan

The cast of this show may be small but they work together as a well-oiled machine, doubling up for the ensemble roles. There is not a single performance that doesn't shine in this production, no matter how small or large the role may be represented. Some of the cast are veterans while at least half of the cast are making either their 5th Avenue or ACT Theatre debuts in this ACT Theatre/5th Avenue Theatre co-production. Nathan Brockett (playing the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald) is one of the debut performers and does an incredible job. As a musical narrator his is perhaps the evening's largest role. His voice is strong and his boyish appearance mirrors the youthfully optimistic view that slowly turns more bitter with each assassination attempt, until he becomes one of the ex-patriots himself. Nick DeSantis (playing The Proprietor) summons the ex-patriots together at his netherworld shooting gallery. His voice is rich and deep as he musically presents the challenge to each person stepping up to try his or her luck. He also acts as a commentator linking the scenes together. Frederick Hagreen (playing John Hinckley) is a great combination of geek with danger brimming just under the surface. He plays Hinkley as sullen and monotonously awkward, until meeting his role model Oswald, before instantly showing himself as crazed fan.

Laura Griffith (playing Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme) departs from her usual role as femme fatal changing to that of a 'fatal femme.' Griffith moves across the stage with the grace of a 'free-spirit' only to turn and show the craziness emoted in her eyes and facial expressions. Her voice is beautiful adding to the irony when she and Hagreen (as Fromme and Hinckley) sing the show's touching, haunting, and unrequited love number to their respected fantasies - Hinckley to Jodie Foster and Fromme to Charles Manson. Kendra Kassebaum (playing Sara Jane Moore) provides an almost sad, portrait of this woman. Her voice is fantastic and she brings a comical edge to this character if not by facial expressions, then from her ennunciations and inflections of her character's speech. When she sings the haunting ballad, 'Something Just Broke,' the power of her voice brings out the significance of Sondheim's lyrics showing the impact of 'Presicide' on a country. Richard Gray (playing Charles Guiteau) is one of the evening's shining moments. He represents the assassin with a maniacal psychotic behavior that is both comical and disturbing all at once. Gray easily shows the character's delusions of grandeur while allowing him to become completely endeared to the audience - despite the horrific act which the character has committed. The audience shares his enthusiasm as he dances up the stairs until coming face-to-face with the hanging rope. Gray allows his character to become a living piece of animation letting the audience in on the joke by laughing at his antics and realizing the craziness of his actions.

The music and lyrics of any Sondheim musical is as important a character as those represented on stage. The beautiful images of the evening's love song, ('Unworthy of Your Love') includes the lyrics, 'I would swim oceans, I would move mountains, I would do anything for you,' and may seem cliché until we realize the depths of what the character IS willing to do. The power behind the evening's '11 o'clock number,' 'Something Just Broke,' says in montage, 'I remember where I was, just exactly where I was, in the yard out back...I was getting me a shoeshine...We were waiting for a carriage, Suddenly there's shouting in the street - 'the president's been shot.' Every member of the audience feels the song's impact as it is sung in almost a hushed, solemn whisper. And, it is done so beautifully by Ms. Kassebaum, who held the distinctive pleasure of introducing the song on Broadway.

If there is a flaw, it comes with mixed blessings. The songs are complete genius with their insight and clever commentary that Sondheim has become known for. But several of them (in this musical) end with the execution of the successful assassin. Although it is comically poignant when both Zangara and Guiteau finish their numbers and are executed by the state, it is still an uncomfortable feeling for the audience to applaud at the sight of an electrocution or a hanging. Nervous laughter could be heard in the dark, as the applause was slow to get started at these points. It should be noted that once the clapping began, it continued with deserved enthusiasm; the numbers are brilliant and by making us look at our own discomfort is one of the reasons why musical theater exists.



Assassins first opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons on December 18, 1990 closing after only 73 performances. The show was remounted (with the additional song, 'Something Just Broke') at Studio 54 on March 31, 2004, running for over 100 performances. The official 'Broadway' cast (at Studio 54) included Neil Patrick Harris, James Barbour, Mario Cantone, Michael Cerveris, Kendra Kassebaum, and Marc Kudish among other notable names. The show was nominated for 8 Tony Awards (2004 season), winning six including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Michael Cerveris).

After seeing a production of Assassins, the comedian Sarah Vowel recorded her journey up and down the East Coast, visiting the sites related to each of the Presidential assassination attempts, in her enlightening (and humorous) book, Assassination Vacation.

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THE MOISTURE FESTIVAL OF COMEDY/VARIETÈ

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THE GLITTER OF THE LITERATI:

The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the Saints & Sinners Festival

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Afghan war satire Whiskey Tango Foxtrot a Tina Fey showcase
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