Saturday, January 27, 2007

opening-weekend review of Stephen Sondheim’s *Assassins*

at the Civic’s Firth J. Chew Studio Theater through Feb. 18
directed by Troy Nickerson

The pursuit of happiness? Hell, we’re entitled to more than just pursuing something. After all, we have the God-given right to be on *American Idol.* We have the right actually to be somebody. A free society holds out the promise that we can all be … famous, notorious, whatever. (Just as long as people have heard your name.) And if you don’t achieve your American Dream, then by God and apple pie, you have the right to twist it, pervert it, and plunge yourself into despair. And the only cure for abject failure is to take out your frustrations on something big. Something really, really big.

Something like murdering a president.

Stephen Sondheim’s musical examination of nine assassins (some of them wanna-bes) doesn’t glamorize the fruitcakes and nut jobs who’ve sought to scratch their own particular itches by exploding bullets into presidential brain matter. But it doesn’t merely aim at understanding them or extending compassion to them, either. Instead, Sondheim and John Weidman (who wrote the musical’s book) are after an indictment of the regular-Joe theatergoers in their audience. No, the vast majority of us aren’t pulling triggers. But to what extent does our countenancing social injustice breed killers? And it’s not just a matter of letting people sink into poverty, though of course that motivated several of these assassins. We all remember where we were … we all turn to CNN as infotainment … we like the boost to our own egos when the *American Idol* freak show comes on. Oh, some poor schmuck named Hinckley or Czolgosz or Oswald just shot the president. How interesting. I wonder how long it will keep my interest. I wonder how little I care about the disenfranchised and distraught among us.

People say, “Oh, how depressing. How absurd. Who wants to watch a show about murderers?” (And it’s true: More shots are fired during this show than any other in recent memory.) But people hide behind that kind of trivial objection. Because what Sondheim is doing is pointing the gun — and finger — directly at us.

Or try overcoming any reluctance you may have this way: Over the past 15 years, I’ve seen most of the shows in the Studio Theater, and *Assassins* is better than nearly all of them — it’s certainly among the three or four best over that span. If you want to see a show that will entertain and enthrall you — that will have you squirming in self-recognition while at the same time showcasing some of this area’s best musical theater talent — then you’ve got three weeks left to snatch up one of the Firth J. Chew’s reconfigured 90 (or so) seats.

The buzz among local actors months ago was: “Did you see that they’re gonna do *Assassins*?” Well, they’re doing it, and doing it up grand. The Civic has done well to select this show as its entry in the state, regional and national AACT competition among community theaters, following in the successful footsteps of its previous national champions in 1989 and ’99.

Don’t miss the musical indictment of what Americans let other Americans sink into (the illusion that violence solves social and personal problems, that it does anything other than beget more violence). Don’t miss *Assassins.*

Director and choreographer Troy Nickerson creates one thrilling moment after another. A lineup of assassins stretching 120 years across American history, stepping up right into the audience’s collective face, the footlights distorting their fiendish grins from below. (In fact, Nickerson and set designer David Baker signal longtime Studio playgoers right from the beginning that they’re going to have a different kind of experience with this show, and one that’s literally unsettling: The entire usual orientation of seats to stage down in the Studio has been uprooted, transformed.)

Again and again, Sondheim and Nickerson create surprising effects, interesting tableaux, surprising juxtapositions. A couple of well-known local actors, meanwhile — Abbey Crawford as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and David Gigler as John Hinckley — submerge themselves so well into their roles that at first they’re almost unrecognizable. I’d forgotten the poignancy of putting this unlikely (and whacked-out, violent) couple together in, of all things, a love duet called “Unworthy of Your Love” — because that’s exactly how Squeaky worshipped Charlie Manson and Hinckley worshipped Jodie Foster. The effect is heart-rending and chilling all at once, and it goes to the core of American despair: I want the Dream; I see others achieving the Dream; I’ll take a quick and violent path straight toward the Dream. Won’t that make things better?

Crawford’s scene with Marianne McLaughlin as Sara Jane Moore — the hippie and the housewife, both of whom tried to kill Gerald R. Ford in 1975 — was even funnier than it was on Broadway, for two reasons: Crawford plays Squeaky as less a freak than a human being, and McLaughlin conveys genuine surprise and befuddlement when she mishandles her gun or gets a little too high.

Nickerson decides to postpone the entrance of the presidential assassin best known to baby boomers who were alive in November 1963 (and their parents and grandparents); on Broadway two years ago, Neil Patrick Harris took a more prominent role alongside that production’s Proprietor in introducing and commenting on the other assassins. George Green plays Oswald more for insecurity and fear than as any kind of stone-cold killer. (Sondheim, of course, took heat for thoroughly accepting the Warren Commission scenario — not much room for CIA complicity when Lee Harvey is as likely to shoot himself in despair as he is to shoulder a rifle and aim it at JFK.) Like a spider toying with a fly, McHenry-Kroetch snares Green in his web: Weidman’s climactic scene imagines Booth as a Texas State Book Depository tempter. The physical difference in height plays an effective role here, with McHenry-Kroetch looming over his prey.

If compelled to pick a standout in an already outstanding cast, I’d have to go with McHenry-Kroetch as the original presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth. (Jan Wanless’ Victorian cravat-and-cutaway looked especially good on Booth; her rust-colored bowler and carnival-barker attire for Heppler’s Proprietor and red hippie dress for Squeaky-Crawford were also quite effective.)

[ dir., SFX, Booth, 2 pc., set, nec. cuts ]

Unlike so much latter-day Sondheim music (unmemorable patter songs, melodically undistinguished — literate and witty, but all blending together), some of the *Assassins* songs stick in the memory, especially the satiric show-biz exuberance of “Everyone Has the Right” in particular. Perhaps having to suit so many different historical eras inspired the composer/lyricist to vary his musical palette more than usual.

As Nickerson and his cast move toward the state and regional Kaleidoscope competition, naturally there are weaknesses that could use improvement. (Cutting 50 minutes out of this show to edit it down to its one-long competition fighting weight, however, won’t be easy: It’s a relentless, intermission-less, in-your-face show.)

Andrew Ware-Lewis moves like a dancer among the assassins. He’s not up to the excessive demands that Sondheim places on the Balladeer, however, for rapid-fire speed-singing; few people would be. A somewhat slower tempo and real emphasis on articulation and volume would help during the accelerated expository passages. In “The Gun Song” (or at least during some of the musical numbers that call for vaudeville movements), Ware-Lewis could afford to point up the satire by smiling more. But he looms like a brooding presence throughout on the shadowy sidelines.

Thomas Heppler’s Proprietor, like Ware-Lewis at times, isn’t projecting nearly enough vocally. A couple of dramatic ring-the-carnival-bell moments don’t register because Heppler seems hesitant.

Matt Harget is simply too restrained as Samuel Byck, the Santa Claus suit-wearing oddball who intended to fly a plane into Nixon’s White House. Harget’s got some of the smoldering resentment, but he’s missing the flamboyant, partly self-aware buffoonery that Byck projects: This is a guy who knows his plan is crazy, but who can laugh at himself because he knows it, right before he starts lamenting and growing livid over the crazy state of chaos this world has wound itself into. More self-mockery would counterpoint the outrage at the world that Nixon screwed up.

But if I can’t quite deliver a rave on Nickerson’s production of *Assassins,* I want to emphasize that this is a very, very good show. Critics supposedly sit in quiet frustration, shut out of the process, unable to act themselves and relieving their wounded pride by puncturing the egos of all the little actors up onstage.

Well, I don’t want to become another black hole of on-his-sleeve insecurity like that pathetic Hinckley guy or another dick like Samuel Byck.

*Assassins* is so good, I want to publicly apologize for anything overly critical or unfair I have ever said about anyone associated with this show. I’m just a writer; these people are the ones doing it night after night up there onstage. Assassins is one of those exceptional shows that should make anyone who sees it and who’s evenly loosely involved in local theater proud to be part of such a creative and talented theatrical community.

Hats off to them. As many people as possible should buy their tickets and take in this show. Attention should indeed be paid.


At February 15, 2007 12:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Assassins" is sold out! Even the added performance. However, you still have a chance to see it, in Festival format, on March 4th at 7:30 pm. We will be performing the 1-hour Festival cut of the show on the main stage at Civic. Get your tickets while they are still available!! All proceeds to benefit the Festival Fund.

At February 15, 2007 4:24 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Michelle Holland, producer, wrote:
"Assassins" is sold out! Even the added performance. However, you still have a chance to see it, in Festival format, on March 4th at 7:30 pm. We will be performing the 1-hour Festival cut of the show on the main stage at Civic. Get your tickets while they are still available!! All proceeds to benefit the Festival Fund.


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