Supposedly Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is his only musical about which he asserts he “wouldn’t change anything”. It’s a sprawling, unruly, anachronistic, absurdist pastiche, a darkly animated view into the anguished minds and twisted motivations of desperate, angry, delusional people who assassinated US presidents, or made the attempt.
Chilling, unworldly, as if brewed up by Macbeth’s witches. Instead of the three hags, Sondheim’s catalyst appears as a fairgrounds shooting gallery gun salesman, known as The Proprietor, played ably by Scott Bardin. He lures the malcontents to the stage, promising them in the opening song that “Everybody’s Got the Right” to be happy as he hands them each a gun as personal pathway to bliss. Often masking the darkness of the deeds revealed with rollicking, upbeat tunes in the style of the era depicted, Sondheim projects madness’ inner dialogue as contrast to sensationalist mob mentality. By the time his characters’ shooting sprees lead to ”Another National Anthem” near the show’s end, the audience senses it own voyeuristic blood hunger. What of our culture’s obsession with fame and celebrity, easy answers to tough questions and obsessive pursuit of the tattered American Dream? Sympathize with the assassins? Eleven guns, cinematic scene fade ins and outs, lightning fast onstage costume/ character changes, ever-shifting rear wall slide projections for mood and commentary, plus the requirement for an ensemble of strong singers with wide vocal ranges and genuine acting chops, all integrate to focus with intensity on the mental state and motivations of the creepy spirits evoked. Mounting this show presents a more sophisticated challenge than it might seem at first glance. Pay attention. Squeeze that finger. “Sic semper tyrannis!” shouts Booth. It’s not just killing. It’s assassination….
Terri Hagar-Scherer directs Onstage in Bedford’s solid ensemble cast with economy and grace, allowing the story and character revelations to unfold naturally, never imposing gimmicky “concept” stereotype on any of it. From Julius Caesar to JFK, her cast explores the blind alleys of rage, desperation and psychosis with clarity, depth and tuneful mastery of Sondheim’s challenging score. Onstage in Bedford’s venue is a smallish proscenium space with limited fly and lighting capacity, more suited to linear, conventional comedies than complex, time-warp, dark-themed musical theatre that spills off the set into the aisles. Hagar-Scherer uses the space to best advantage, framing important historical moments with classic stage picture convention, while allowing her cast to enter and exit in modern, meta-theatrical form, as nightmarish apparitions. She keeps set elements simple, minimal (Charlotte Newman, scenic design). The key element is a center stage floor painting of the US Presidential Seal, across which everyone treads with diffidence. Simple packing crates function as set pieces, carried on or off by actors. Stage left a realistic electric chair rolls in and out easily on casters as a gallows does stage right. Upstage, screen projections from abstract to realistic enhance mood or set tone appropriately, including a projection of the Zapruder tape, duplicating the horrifying effect from the 2004 Tony award-winning Broadway revival (Chris Robinson, video design). Costume design (Derek C. Whitener) helps define instantaneous period recognition, even as some scenes overlap time periods, reinforcing the work’s surreal quality. Sound and lighting design (Kenny Green, Michael Winters) round out solid production values with crisp, clear delineation. Choreography by Eddie Floresca enhances and reflects song tempos and helps define the characters in a timeless, floating unreality as they move from thought to action, as if conjured by evil forces beyond realistic comprehension. Chelsea Coyne’s music direction features the singers’ strengths in bringing to life the signature Sondheim motifs and melodies. One could not hope for cleaner production values from any company.
No weak link mars Hagar-Scherer’s cast. Nick Moore fully inhabits the showpiece role, John Wilkes Booth, in colorful voice (sung and spoken) and demeanor, moving from realism to apparition with confidence and flair. Imbedded in the American conscience, Booth’s just never going away. Caroline Rivera and Kiley Pearson provide hapless comic relief as Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromm, but turn terrifying as events beyond their control unfold. Craig Boleman’s Charles Guiteau, Spencer Laboda’s Giuseppe Zangara and Travis Ripley’s Leon Czolgosz inspire empathy as well as disgust with their unique displays of misguided madness. Mike Hathaway portrays little-known Samuel Byck (tried to assassinate Nixon), a non-singing role, as a classic untreated schizophrenic, fearlessly creating a seedy, memorable portrait of a monster to be pitied as much as reviled.
Byck’s paranoid rambling monologues seem eerily similar to today’s am radio rants. So when does rant evolve into action? Versatile talent Ben Phillips presents a totally convincing, inept John Hinckley, the seemingly harmless nerd obsessed with Jody Foster, until his sickness drives him to attempt to assassinate Reagan. Recent Oklahoma City University graduate Jordan Justice creates a wholesome, romantic Balladeer, the musical’s narrator and audience identifier. When the other malcontents gang up and bully him into becoming the ultimate, paradigm-shifting assassin near the show’s end, his convincing transformation sends waves of nausea across the audience. Justice does not resemble Lee Harvey Oswald physically, but there he emerges, no matter. The balance of the acting/singing ensemble fleshes out the show with strong vocals and well-defined characterization. Surely Stephen Sondheim would cheer for this mounting of “Assassins”, a first rate regional theatrical performance by any community or professional standard.
PHOTOS by James Jamison
Assassins runs at Onstage in Bedford Fridays through Sundays through August 11, 2013. It’s a sell-out. Get your tickets well in advance.