In late 1990, a new Stephen Sondheim musical premiered on Broadway, with a book by John Weidman. It was dark, and had a very uncomfortable theme. It was a musical that highlighted the men and women who have a dream, a burning in their bellies, a driving need to do what they think is necessary to make their world a better place. They want to shoot the president. As one might expect, this musical (“Assassins”) flopped, running only 73 performances. In 2001 in one, it was about to be remounted again… and then terrorists flew planes into the WTC and the Pentagon (and wanted to hit the White House) on September 11th — echoing a would be assassin of Richard Nixon in the show, who wanted to fly a plane into the White House. The revival was scrapped again. It was finally remounted in 2004 to a bit more success… but the subject remains uncomfortable.
Today, we saw “Assassins” in its production at West Coast Ensemble. Assassins tells the story of all the successful and unsuccessful presidential assassins: John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (McKinley), Giuseppe Zangara (FDR, unsuccessful), Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy), Samuel Byck (Nixon, unsuccessful), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Ford, unsuccessful), and John W. Hinkley Jr (Reagan, unsuccessful). They are egged on by a character called the Proprietior, who is really more of a carnival barker, urging them to “Shoot a President, Win a Prize”. A more sardonic view of the proceedings comes from the Balladeer. What’s hard to figure out is the point of the show. One underlying theme is captured in the title of this post: “Everyone has the right to be happy, everybody has the right to their dreams”. Part of the American dream is the right to take action for what you believe in. Does that include the right to shoot the president? Is that a form of free speech? But the play shows that folks had a variety of reasons behind their actions: to ease their pains, to make a statement, to please someone or to get attention for their cause, or because they were just nuts. But it doesn’t work. They aren’t remembered for their cause, they are remembered because they attempted to shoot the president. Perhaps some lines from the Balladeer’s first number make the point best:
Every now and then
Bound to come along
Doesn’t stop the story —
Story’s pretty strong
Doesn’t change the song…
Listen to the stories
Hear it in the songs
Angry men don’t write the rules
And guns don’t right the wrongs
Hurts a while
But soon the country’s
Back where it belongs
And that’s the truth
So, “Assassins”, in the end, isn’t a musical about the right to dreams. It is more a musical on the strength of the American dream — that even though there are madmen out there who do mad things, these angry men don’t write the rules, and America ultimately will right itself. We now have madmen who are using more than guns, and we have leaders who are tilting the ship strongly in reaction. But the system is strong, and we have the ability to right it. Pretty good message in a dark musical, I must say.
So how did West Coast Ensemble do? I think they did a very good job (only one substantive complaint, which you’ll find near the end). The acting was supurb. The whole cast was remarkable, not only in their singing but in their acting and their nuances. This is one of Sondheim’s most dramatic plays (I think the second half would rival most dramas), and it was just astounding. Some actors deserve some special praise. From the set of assassins, I was particularly impressed with Christopher Davis Carlisle as John Wilkes Booth, the first man to show it was possible to shoot a president; Steven Connoræ at Charles J. Guiteau, who lots of life and energy; Johanna Kent as Sara Jane Moore, who had loads of confused playfullness; Darrin Revitzæ as Lynnette “Squeeky” Fromme, who portrayed the crazy devotion one would expect from a Manson followerer. Even more of note were Dana Reynolds as the Balladeer, who seemed to take glee in interacting and commenting on the assassins. Even stronger was Shannon Stoeke in the dual role of the Proprietor/Lee Harvey Oswald, who was the evil counterpart to the Balladeer, encouraging our protagonists that they had the right, if not a duty, to shoot the president.
The remainder of the company were supurb, but their performances just didn’t “pop” as the folks named above. Rounding out the assassins were Jim Holdridgeæ as Guiseppe Zangara; Larry Ledermanæ as Leon Czolgosz, David Nadeau at John Hinckley, and John O’Brien at Samuel Byck. Others in the ensemble, playing various roles, were Sterling Beaumonæ and Andrea Covell.
[æ denotes members of Actors Equity ]
Technically, the crew did a remarkable job with the small space they had. The current WCE location was Sydney Chaplin’s first theatre. The stage is very small, with no wing space. But somehow the crew made it work with remarkable sets, remarkable lighting, remarkable costumes (with really fast changes), and remarkable direction. Credit goes to Richard Israel (Director), Carla Barnett (Producing Director), Suzanne Doss (Assistant Director), Lisa D. Katz (Lighting Design), Stephen Gifford (Set Design), Johanna Kent (Music Director), Richard Berent (Orchestral Realizations), A. Jeffrey Schoenberg (Costume Design), and Cricket S. Myers (Sound Design). Stage management was by Erin Bedinger, and produced by Michelle Exarhos and Flip Laffoon. The artistic director for WCE is Les Hanson.
Now for the complaint. Although the page for the theatre says there are 46 seats, I heard there were 99 in there — and they were the narrowest, most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever been in. Hopefully WCE will soon find themselves a venue that is equal to their outstanding productions.
So what’s upcoming on our theatre calendar? We have a bit of a break until the end of September, when we are seeing “Vanitites” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/20 @ 8pm. I hope to ticket “9 to 5” at the Ahmanson in September (HotTix go on sale on Wednesday). September will also bring “Of Mice and Men” at Repertory East on a date to be determined. October will bring “The King and I” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/25 @ 2pm.