Sondheim’s “Assassins” Hits the Target at the Pico Playhouse

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

As the topic of guns in society becomes more and more prominent during the upcoming election season, Stephen Sondheim’s controversial 1990 Off-Broadway and off-beat musical Assassins has increased in its relevancy. Rarely staged today, Assassins is an event that commands attention, and last week, we traveled to the Pico Playhouse in Los Angeles to see their version of the show, which also featured several performers familiar to Ventura County audiences. 

The show’s tableau is a perverse carnival that becomes a sort of historical limbo, during which the assassins of U.S. presidents (both successful and failed) meet to present their side of their stories. To the strains of “Hail to the Chief,” played in carnival waltz time, we meet the killers of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley, plus unsuccessful would-be assassins of Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. The proceedings and our anti-heroes are introduced by the Proprietor, played by Cole Cuomo, whose booming voice accompanies his portrayal of the erstwhile ringmaster of this malevolent circus, who sells and hands out guns to the players as they are introduced. 

Assassins doesn’t tell a story in the conventional way musicals play out, but Sondheim has never been conventional. Instead of a story, we get character portraits, and then watch as the perpetrators bond, ignoring the time frames during which they existed. You have to be a little cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs to want to kill a president, and this gaggle of miscreants, ne-er-do-wells, and societal misfits are all nuttier than fruitcakes, some more than others. The group runs the gamut of emotions, from angry to depressed to confused, but they all have one thing in common: a sense of desperation that they reason can only be cured by killing America’s head of state. 

In the opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” the Proprietor acts as pitchman in convincing the assemblage that shooting the President of the United States would solve their problems. As the show progresses, we hear from each of the assassins as they justify their actions. John Wilkes Booth is first, presenting his nationalistic pride as representative of the Confederacy. As played by Travis Rhett Wilson (an elegant, Southern-flavored name if there ever was one), Booth is displayed as a courtly, theatrical, and conceited gentleman of the South. Wilson does a terrific job adopting a honeyed accent as he moves into his scene, which dramatizes his final moments in the burning Virginia barn where he lies in pain from the broken leg he suffered after leaping to the stage at Ford’s Theatre. 

Leon Czolgosz, the Polish anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, is played by Adam Hunter Howard, who gives a magnificently understated and sympathetic performance as the bottle factory worker who can’t seem to stay on track in achieving the American Dream. The “Dream” is represented by the Balladeer, played by Nick Tubbs (who we saw in the ensemble in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Grease a few years ago). Tubbs’ glorious tenor is used to good effect in relating the back stories of the assassins. Howard’s Polish accent is totally believable and natural, which helps us feel sympathy for the embattled immigrant, who only wants to earn a decent living for his family. 

Charles Guiteau, who shot James Garfield in 1881, was a disappointed office seeker who flitted from job to job before fancying himself the future U.S. Ambassador to France. Disillusioned when Garfield mockingly dismisses him, Guiteau takes his revenge on the president by shooting him. Jeff Alan-Lee provides flair in his portrayal of Guiteau, although he has nothing to base his flamboyance on. 

It’s interesting that some of the best performances in the show come from the performers playing the failed assassins: David Gallic as Samuel Byck, who wanted to fly a plane into the White House to kill Richard Nixon, Jason Peter Kennedy as Giuseppe Zangara, who shot at FDR, missed, and killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak instead, Zach Lutsky as John Hinckley, who shot at Ronald Reagan as a love offering to Jodie Foster, and Claire Adams and Janna Cardia as, respectively, Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and five-time divorcee Sara Jane Moore, who both had Gerald Ford in their sights, but failed in their efforts. 

Gallic is fabulously funny as Byck, a slob in a Santa suit, who holds an imaginary one-way conversation with Leonard Bernstein (“Lennie”), one of many public figures who Byck sent bizarre tape recordings to in the early 1970s. Gallic’s explosive characterization is like Mel Blanc doing Yosemite Sam (he even looks a little like Blanc). Repeating the mantra of many of the assassins, Byck just wants to be heard, and reacts in frustration and violence after being ignored. But like the others, Byck heeds the advice of Booth, who oozes seductively, “Just move your little finger and change the world.”  

Kennedy is also good as Zangara, using a thick Italian accent and complaining of stomach ulcers. As Sara Jane Moore, Janna Cardia gets the most laughs with her feeble fumbling with firearms – she’s the most unlikely assassin of them all, munching on KFC chicken during a hilarious scene with Claire Adams as Fromme. Adams, who appeared recently in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Oklahoma! as Gertie, is a terrific young actress who completely disappears into her characters. Her Squeaky is a spaced-out hippie who gazes lovingly at a worn-out photograph of Charles Manson. But Adams injects a sense of disquieting danger in her ditzy portrayal, and it’s hard to take your eyes off of her. 

The fun of Assassins comes in the interaction among the characters. The extended scene with Adams and Cardia is like a Saturday Night Live sketch, and both actresses handle it with superb skill and comic timing. The scene between Czolgosz and anarchist Emma Goldman (beautifully played by Selah Victor) is one of the best moments in the show, as we are led to feel empathy for Czolgosz, who only wants to earn a respectable living for his family, but is inflamed by Goldman’s anger toward the government and turns to violence. Lutsky and Adams sing the bizarre love song “Unworthy of Your Love,” an inspired number that links together actress Jodie Foster and mass murderer Charles Manson. 

Sondheim deftly crafted the musical so that when it came to the penultimate scene, the introduction of Lee Harvey Oswald, we are like a rough block of wood that has been sanded, smoothed, and polished, fully primed to be sympathetic towards Oswald. As Booth cajoles Oswald, another “victim of indifference and neglect,” into shooting JFK, we find ourselves actually rooting for him to go through with it. It’s a very unsettling feeling, as all of the assassins turn to urge Oswald on, as if he were a pinch-hitter in a momentous World Series moment. When Oswald finally accedes to their urging and fires the fatal rifle shot, the sound that comes out is like that of cannon fire. The scene is even more effective because Oswald is played by the outstanding Sean Benedict, whose slightly built, glowering presence is probably the most perfect casting of any of the characters. 

Supporting players in the show included Dominic DeArmey as Sara Jane Moore’s bratty son Billy, Paul Wong as a pratfalling Gerald Ford (who stumbles over a stash of spilled bullets), and Bryan Vickery as a boomingly effective David Herold, Booth’s co-conspirator who helps hide him in the Virginia barn where Booth was ultimately killed. The outstanding four-piece orchestra is led by Anthony Lucca. Special kudos to dialect coach PJ Ochlan for outstanding work on the wide variety of effective and convincing accents. 

In his program notes, director Dan Fishbach reasons that Assassins poses divisive and charged questions to today’s audiences. In the twenty-five years since the show first opened Off-Broadway, America has experienced one violent incident after another, from 9/11 to the rash of “lone-nut” massacres of recent years. As Fishbach explains, this has given rise to the realization that our pursuit of happiness, idealistically guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence, has been disrupted by a disparate division between the haves and the have-nots, political and societal oppression and corruption, and the incredible ease in which we can obtain firearms. Assassins makes us think about these things, all of which are reflected by the life stories of its characters. Assassins continues to be a relevant, disturbing, yet somehow entertaining piece of theatre that hits the target. 

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Assassins plays at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, through September 27. For tickets, visit www.assassinsmusicalLA.com 

 

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