Squeeze that little finger. “Sic semper tyrannis!” shouts John Wilkes Booth from offstage. It’s not just killing. It’s assassination…. Is there a creepy chill in this theatre?
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins really bothers me. It’s not just the subject matter, which is pretty disturbing. It feels disjointed, with the characters and scenes disconnected from the show’s music and tone. I don’t care if Sondheim describes it as his only musical where he “wouldn’t change anything”. It doesn’t feel finished, like it’s the longest work-shopped production in modern history (opened Off Broadway in 1990). I’ve seen two versions recently. I come away more chagrined than satisfied, particularly after seeing Theatre Three’s highly stylized Main Stage production, running through October 27. A strong ensemble carefully directed by Bruce R. Coleman works hard at fever pitch. At this broadly drawn scale, I see readily where the show’s seams don’t match up compared to the more intimate, smaller scale production I attended earlier in the year. Adding an intermission does no favor to its continuity.
This musical examines the internal workings of delusion, disillusion and madness that drive people to assassinate US presidents (or attempt to) from an almost ritual perspective with epic, tragic overtones, hinting that the destructive, evil drive is part of our collective subconscious. It calls upon the audience to sympathize with each assassin, which starts to feel like complicity by the reprise of the showstopper “Everybody’s Got the Right” at show conclusion. One feels like washing the hands upon leaving.
Theatre Three’s production opens in an eerie, garishly lit, carnival fun-house setting, where a sleazy, sly Proprietor (nee Devil incarnate) summons the cast of historical misfits and hands them weapons as he sings “Everybody’s got the right to be happy…”. Jason Kane’s powerful presence, poker face and disarmingly sweet voice work well to set the show’s dominant menacing tone. The rollicking “The Ballad of Booth” follows hard on, sung by John Wilkes Booth and the show’s Greek chorus, The Balladeer. Booth, played masterfully by Gregory Lush as half real-half ghost, drives the show’s plot and enacts a variety of assassinated presidents’ “bits” in melodrama style, pantomiming dying behind a large, vacant puppet face he carries. Lush summons up a Booth right out of a 19th century horror tale, with a whiff of Ambrose Bierce. Christopher Deaton, with his warm, rich vocal tones, provides an element of emotional depth, strolling through as The Balladeer, even as the character sometimes seems superfluous and distracting. The show’s culminating song, “Another National Anthem” opens Act Two. Coming right off intermission, the cast struggles nobly to regain the macabre mood flow created in Act One. The band overpowered the singers during most ensemble numbers where I sat on opening night, so it was impossible to distinguish their words; consequently the sense of this integral song felt lost under music.
Not all performances serve the characters depicted or the show’s themes particularly well, playing the roles with a too comic, hyper-antic sensibility or striving too hard for realism. Marisa Diatolevi as clumsy, ditsy broad Sara Jane Moore and Bryan Lewis as darkly reflective Leon Czolgosz steer clear of caricature or reality TV and bring fresh vitality and honesty to these odd, dramatic roles. This production, ultimately, belongs to the kinetic trio of Kane, Lush and Deaton. It’s peppy and entertaining, with some solid moments and quality vocals overall. It just doesn’t feel like a finished show matching Sondheim’s usual impeccable standard.
Bruce R. Coleman designed costumes as well as directed. Vonda K. Bowling directed music. David Walsh designed the set. Amanda West designed lights, and Richard Frohlich designed sound.
Assassins runs through October 27 on the Norma Young Arena Stage at The Quadrangle.
Tickets: www.theatre3dallas.com, 214-871-3300
For a contrast in perception, here is my review of the Onstage in Bedford production from last summer: