Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2002
I think it takes real chutzpah to stage Assassins less than a year after 9/11. In a summer season where many area theatres are busily waving the flag, scheduling this daring, edgy musical which explores the lives and possible motives of nine people who attempted or succeeded in assassinating an American President is a bold move. In the hands of a lesser director and ensemble, it could be disastrous, but I am happy to say that the Columbia Civic Players and director Tom Detwiler have mounted a thoughtful, moving, and even entertaining production, and I encourage you to go.
Stephen Sondheim was in his sixties and well established as the reigning King of the American Musical Theatre when he and John Weidman wrote Assassins in the late 1980’s. Even with his name behind it, the show was not given a Broadway production but instead had its world premiere off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons were it was scheduled for a two month run from December 1990-January of 1991. The show was recorded on the strength of the Sondheim name, and has had been widely produced by regional and community theatres across the country in the past twelve years.
Sondheim blends the musical styles and motifs of each historical period with his own creative talents to help evoke the time and place of each assassination or attempt. The Ballad of Booth has a distinctive Civil War flavor, while Unworthy of Your Love, a duet for John Hinckley, Jr., and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme evokes the flower power folk music of the 1970’s, and the Ballad of Giteau includes actual tunes and lyrics that President Garfield’s assassin wrote.
It is easier to point out the two weak links in the brilliant cast assembled at the Ghent Playhouse than to start the long list of fine performances. Dylan Widjiono seems to be fishing for a characterization for John Hinkley, Jr., and Walter Bauer struggles in the difficult role of Lee Harvey Oswald.
I cannot lay total blame at Bauer’s feet however, since the scene in which he appears is the most problematic in the script. The assassination of President Kennedy is the most recent “successful” attempt, there are many people still living who remember it vividly, the national wound has not healed, there is serious doubt in many minds that Oswald really was the assassin, and he was assassinated himself. Weidman tries to tiptoe around all these problems by waiting until the end of the evening to bring Oswald on (all of the other assassins appear throughout) and then making him the center of one of the show’s longest uninterrupted stretches of dialogue in which the others convince a reluctant Oswald to go through with the deed in a very unconvincing scene. Oswald does not have a musical number and the ensemble number which now follows his scene — Something Just Broke — was not in the original production but added later by Sondheim and Weidman following negative reactions to their handling of the Kennedy assassination. It doesn’t help, it merely sounds apologetic.
But lets get to the good stuff, and, boy, there is plenty of it! Far be it from me to hand down a bad review of a show that insinuates that John Wilkes Booth was driven to assassinate Lincoln because he was driven mad by unkind theatre critics! Steve Michalek plays Booth, the “pioneer” assassin, as a smooth talking Southern gentleman, every inch the smarmy actor type, but he also convincingly delivers Booth’s political tirades. Jack O’Connor is delightfully demented as Charles Guiteau who had lively careers as an evangelist and author before killing President Garfield because he wouldn’t name him Ambassador to France. Tom Fisher is downright creepy as Guiseppe Zangara. Fisher literally shakes with rage and as he sings powerfully about the physical and mental pain which drove him to attempt to assassinate FDR. Joe Phillips brings amazing heart and humanity to the working class Leon Czolgosz (roughly pronounced Show-gosh) who assassinated William McKinley. And Paul Murphy as Samuel Byck rants with glee in his filthy Santa costume as he drives to the airport to attempt to hijack a 747 and crash it in to the White House to kill President Nixon. That was quite a plan Byck had. Too bad someone better organized and less obviously insane got a hold of it.
Weidman has written the two female assassins Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore as fools. And Maria Lally Clark (Fromme) and Johnna Murray (Moore) play them with comedic gusto. Its like Laverne and Shirley try to assassinate the President. These are two talented ladies and they had me laughing out loud, and then regretting it because there actually is nothing funny about two women, high on pot, shooting at a bucket of KFC (extra crispy), is there?
Thankfully Detwiler has cast the very talented Sally McCarthy as the balladeer, a sort of non-character who provides sung commentary on the action through out the show. This part is often played by a male, but putting McCarthy in the role provides at least one serious female presence on the stage.
And I can’t omit mention of some of the six supporting players either. Paul Leyden has a very funny turn as President Ford. Toni McCarthy makes a winning Emma Goldman and sings very sweetly too. Adam Moon does some real acting both in his ensemble and solo work as Billy Moore. Steve Dahlin gets the show off to an appropriately disturbing start as The Proprietor.
The set, designed by Bill Camp and constructed by Robert Bisson and Oscar Patnaude, makes brilliant use of the tiny stage space in the Ghent Playhouse. It morphs seamlessly and silently from the Virginia barn where Booth was killed in 1865, to a seedy bar room, to the Texas Schoolbook Depository. The set is only enhanced by Sam Machiz’s fine lighting. Machiz has also successfully provided the complex sound effects required.
I mentioned at the outset the proliferation of patriotic, flag waving productions this season, surely a good thing in these troubled times. I should make it clear that Assassins is a thoroughly American show with many flags in evidence. Assassination is neither a new concept nor a practice restricted to this country. In fact, comparatively, Americans practice assassination in moderation, which is why we find our home-grown assassins so curious and memorable. This show is as much an exploration of the culture which created these people as it is of the people themselves.
This is a show for thinking adults. If you want an uplifting, happy musical for the whole family, go see The Sound of Music at the Mac-Haydn. If you want to be challenged as well as entertained, go see Assassins, but leave the kids at home.
Assassins, performed by the Columbia Civic Players, runs May 17, 18, 24, 25 & 31 and June 1 at 8 p.m., and May 19 & 26 and June 2 at 2 p.m. at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off of Rt. 66 in Ghent, NY. Tickets are $15 for evening performances and $14 for matinees. The show runs two and a quarter hours with one intermission. There are many gunshots and adult language throughout. I would not recommend bringing children under 14 to see this show. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-6264.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002