Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by John Leffert
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy CenterStage.
In such a bitter and acrimonious election season as this, it should come as no surprise that this delightfully nasty piece of business from Stephen Sondheim is such an appropriate commentary on American culture in 2016. Assassins is an episodic fantasia that dares to embrace the act of Presidential assassination as an inevitable part of American culture, nothing less than an indictment of the violence inherent in our national character.
It is an idea explicit in the provocative opening number, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” in which several of the assassins procure guns from The Proprietor (Paul Robinson), and which is reinforced in other key numbers like “The Gun Song,” and “Another National Anthem.” We meet each of the characters through a garish carnival sideshow setting, bereft of any conventional narrative structure.
Some vocals were difficult to understand because of problems with the body mics the first part of the show, but things improved before the intermission. Jordan Price may not have quite the vocal power one might seek in John Wilkes Booth, but his plaintiff voice was clear and his phrasing was very good. Kyle Braun took it easy on Leon Czolgosz’ accent so his singing was also clear and strong. “The Gun Song,” which is a particularly crucial number, was given one of the better readings of the night by Price and Braun, joined by Wesley Thomas as Charles J. Giteau and Jennifer Polliskie as Sarah Jane Moore.
Poliskie also shines in comic interludes on a park bench with the winning Lauren McCombs as Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme. These are moments without song, the first of which seemed to not register with the audience, despite the skilled and confident playing of the two actors. Perhaps there is not enough awareness of these two women, who separately attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford only days apart. The show waits until one of the later scenes to provide the exposition necessary to reacquaint us with the only distaff assassins. That a man named Sam Byck (the terrific Jason Cooper) attempted to hijack a commercial airliner in order to fly it into the White House and kill Richard Nixon is also a fact largely forgotten. The program includes helpful notes on each of the historical figures, but if you were interested in learning more, I would refer you to Sarah Vowell’s excellent book, “Assassination Vacation,” in which she travels the country researching their backgrounds.
In truth, how many of us can name any assassin other than Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, the great, iconic pillars of this elite club; individuals who sought to change the world with the squeeze of a trigger. Sondheim well understands this, and he positions Booth and Oswald at opposite ends of the evening, profoundly tragic bookends framing the others.
The Balladeer (Andrew Newton) is a smooth-voiced, clean-cut narrator who introduces some of the segments. His Everyman aspect is pointedly used to connect normality and aberration when (((spoiler alert))) Newton suddenly transforms into Oswald. In a brilliant dialogue scene, he is visited by Booth on November 23, 1963 moments before President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade will pass by. In a startling and prescient insight, Sondheim and book writer John Weidman imagine Oswald being goaded into action by the need for all of the assassins past and future to be fully ‘appreciated’. A rare Sondheim musical whose most important scene is without music, Newton and Price make the confrontation crackle with portent and tension.
The ensemble overall was expert, with Ben Gierhart a nicely lunatic Guiseppe Zingaro, and Josh O’Brien a suitably awkward John Hinkley, Jr. His duet with Ms. McCombs is a particularly sly moment that delivers a conventional love song in the service of dangerous obsession. Ms. McCombs possesses one of the better musical theatre voices in town, and that number, “Unworthy of Your Love,” is the one opportunity for her singing to be highlighted. Wesley Thomas gave Guiteau a slightly less lunatic quality than is typical, and his catchphrase refrain, “I am going to the Lordy,” was sung with a note of reverence that was arguably more suggestive than the comic delivery of most productions.
Conventional wisdom holds that all of these people are deranged, but Sondheim and Weidman make clear that the madness is founded on disillusionment about the American experience drawn entirely from their own lives; they are reactionaries incapable of tempering their anger with rationality. It is almost impossible not to draw a parallel with the rise of the bitter and hostile portion of Donald Trump supporters who have been some of the louder voices of late.
In point of fact, it may be impossible to watch Assassins and not be prompted to such thoughts, making it one of the most relevant shows currently being offered on a Louisville stage. It realizes the classical ideal of theatre as a place of ideas and enlightenment.
Featuring: Jessica Adamson, Kyle Braun, Kristy Calman, Jason Cooper, Ben Gierhart, Erin Jump, Owen Kresse, Sam A. Mannino, Lauren McCombs, Andrew Newton, Jeremy O’ Brien, Josh O’ Brien, Jennifer Poliskie, Jordan Price, Paul Robinson, Noah Stewart, & Wesley Thomas.
Thursday, Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 6 at 2 p.m.
Monday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 13 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 on Saturday night and Sunday matinees, $2 “at the door” charge
Jewish Community Center
3600 Dutchman’s Lane
Louisville, Kentucky 40205
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.