Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); John Weidman (Book)
In an upbeat, tempting voice, this Proprietor cajoles, “Hey pal, I mean you ... You wanna shoot a president? C’mon and shoot a president,” while selling each some sort of vintage gun. He then joins the group of eight in a rousing, feel-good number, “Everybody’s Got the Right” (“to be different, even though at times they go to extremes ... to their dreams”).
Thus opens Assassins, one of the more controversial musicals ever to be staged and one that even companies prolific in producing Stephen Sondheim works often avoid producing. With music and lyrics by the musical genius Sondheim and book by John Weidman, Assassins first opened off-Broadway in 1990 and then took a full fourteen years before finally making it to the Great White Way, pulling in five Tonys. That most of its key principals are the men and women who attempted – and sometimes succeeded – in assassinating American presidents and that it is also jam-packed with plenty of guffaw-producing humor, clever parody, and sharply targeted sarcasm makes Assassins a somewhat bold choice for any theatre to stage. But clearly the packed opening night crowd voted their hearty approval with their laughter and their frequent, sustained applause of Bay Area Musicals’ current choice to produce Assassins as they reveled in the stories unfolding before them of this elite group of America’s greatest non-heroes, of America’s most vile set of villains.
Assassins explores the motivations of these notorious people, at least half of whom most Americans would no longer recognize their names. In the course of the time-tripping musical, the key characters interact with each other in a series of encounters that are of course impossible to have happened except in a script. These gatherings are interspersed with reenactments of the moments before and after their attempted assassinations, including the final demise of several of the perpetrators. And all is done with music that Sondheim has created to echo tunes and genres full of all-American styles of the times each assassin lived. That there is a Yankee-Doodle, patriotic feel to many of the songs makes the musical and its content all the more unnerving and yet intriguing.
Any Sondheim musical is challenging for most actors due to the word-packed lyrics that are often to be sung at a speed just short that of lightning, with vocal ranges required from deepest to highest notes. The Bay Area Musicals (BAM) cast assembled by Director Daren A.C. Carollo to a person is more than able to excel in delivering every twist and turn of the tunes and lyrics that the composer lays before them. Further, this cast excels in convincingly presenting through their acting abilities the strangeness, anger, loneliness, and often sheer insanity of this assembled group emerging from some of our national history’s darkest moments. All display in note-worthy manner the accents, personal traits, and disturbing psychological issues of each would-be assassin. Each also ably sells their spotlighted moments in ways for audience members not only to take note of the quirky, disturbing villains, but also the targeted presidents and the curious and/or stunned bystanders they often portray on the side.
In this production, the director has chosen to accentuate and even exaggerate the humor embedded in the script with exquisitely timed moments like that of President Ford’s characteristic tripping to the ground just before an assassin bungles her failed assassination attempt. The omni-presence of the clown-faced Proprietor (Eric Neiman) watching from the side over assassinations with his ever-present painted smile is an eerie but inspired choice by Mr. Carollo that graphically draws our attention to the fine line Sondheim is drawing between the horror and the humor of these historically grievous and momentous events. And just when we in the audience are caught up in a moment of laughter (all the time not sure we really should be laughing, given the subject matter), all of a sudden one or more guns point directly at us, often shutting us up completely.
With his acoustic guitar in hand, Sage Georgevitch-Castellanos is a young, clean-cut-looking narrator who guides us as Balladeer through the dark tales with All-American-sounding songs sung in a gosh-darn, upbeat manner. His Yankee Doodle Boy approach -- complete with occasional whistling and a smile and personality that could sell the Brooklyn Bridge – is in stark contrast to the ballads he sings as he tells the backgrounds, attempts to make meaning, and even acts as provocateur of various assassins such as Lincoln’s Booth, McKinley’s Czolgosz, and Garfield’s Guiteau.
The Balladeer is often joined by the assassin he sings of. He suggests to John Wilkes Booth that maybe “you’d merely had a slew of bad reviews” as a possible motive for the Lincoln assassination. But reverberating in a deep voice echoing his inherent stage sophistication and Southern manners, Derrick Silva as Booth goes to great pains to explain, “They will understand it [i.e., his motive] later – the country was not what it was.” With a quivering lip and eyes wild with conviction of his own self-truth, a dying Booth tells the Balladeer, “What I did, I did well, and I did it for my country.”
Other assassinators are no less apologetic as they interact with the balladeer. DC Scarpelli as Leon Czolgosz is wild-eyed with anger and moves like a stalking predator as he moves up a line waiting to greet President McKinley at the 1901 Pan American Exposition. Terrence McLaughlin also brings a rabid voice and a graphic countenance – dripping in anger and without regret -- as he sits waiting death in the electric chair for his attempt at bringing FDR down, arguing that he is an American in the New Deal world of Roosevelt who has nothing -- including “no care, no more.”
Peter Budinger is the disillusioned, man-of-many-trades Charles Guiteau who is crazed in his determination to get Garfield to make him French ambassador. Mr. Budinger is particularly startling and memorable as he sings “I Am Going to the Lordy” – a poem the killer actually vocalized before his hanging. Alternating a slow, gospel dirge with a brisk beat full of optimism, his Guiteau looks to heaven with a shining face as he light-foot dances up the steps to the gallows.
Jessica Fisher and Kelli Schultz are often like characters out of a 1970s sitcom as they portray two would-be Gerald Ford assassins, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme respectively – both who fortunately totally bungled their attempts. On a park bench scene where they practice in cackling laughter gun shots aimed a smiling Colonel Sanders on a chicken carton, the two share their crazed pasts and further howl in sounds straight from an insane asylum about their discovery of a shared association with Sharon Tate’s murderer, Charlie Manson.
Other bizarre moments abound that cause both the hilarity and creepiness factors of this musical to go off the scale. In barbershop quartet harmonies right out of a county fair scene, Assassins Czolgosz, Booth, Guiteau, and Moore sing in “The Gun Song,” “Your little finger can slow them down to a crawl, show them all, big and small, it took a little finger no time to change the world.” Hunching over a guitar and singing through a nervously twitching mouth, John Hinkley (who injured President Reagan) is also joined by “Squeaky” in a duet where each sings, “I am nothing” (in “Unworthy of Your Love”) to their idols, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. Soloing and then blending in tones creepily sweet and innocent, each ends with the haunting regret, “I am unworthy of your love ... darling.”
As the man everyone in the audience has waited most of the production to see, Lee Harvey Oswald finally appears, played in this production by the same actor who up to this point has represented the All-American Dream, the Balladeer (another directorial stroke of genius). As Oswald, Sage Georgevitch-Castellanos is now small and thin in white t-shirt and jeans, looking more boy than man and like someone who would likely go unnoticed in a crowd (rather than about to become a notorious icon for the ages). Sitting alone and depressed, he is visited first by a coaxing, smooth-talking Booth and then by the entire entourage of other, encouraging assassins – those before him and those to come after him (even some to be inspired by him). His initial reluctance in this musical’s telling to pull the trigger on Kennedy versus on himself is spine-tingling.
The post-shooting images on the projection screen of Jackie leaning over the President’s body while the onstage Oswald blankly watches in disbelief as his own shadow falls acorss the same screen is enough to send chills down the spine and tears to the eyes. As the entire ensemble sings “Something Just Broke,” individuals of every societal sort remember where they were when they first heard of the assassination – something many in the audience surely are also doing. The humor that up to now has snuck into almost every part of the musical is totally absent in a scene still raw for many watching some fifty-plus years from its actual occurrence.
Director Carollo has created a set design that smacks of a country fair’s sideshow as each historical villain has a framed doorway to enter surrounded by sparkling lights. Ryan Weible’s lighting design accentuates this design, with special touches provided as each individual steps up to re-shape history. The lighting also makes full use of shadows and harsh lights on faces to accentuate the monsters lurking among us.
Julie Indelicato takes advantage of the Alcazar Theatre’s size and setting to create a sound design that ensures each of Sondheim’s many lyrical words and notes are clearly understood and that enables the realism of gun shots and other effects to be believed. Brooke Jennings introduces us to several eras of time, personalities strange and dark, and persona historically well-known and unknown through an incredible array of costumes and wigs (all further complemented by the properties created by Devon LaBelle). Finally, the choreography of Matthew McCoy that calls to mind everything from traveling Vaudeville to B’Way stage shows and the outstanding musical direction of Jon Gallo and his orchestra of eight round out this incredible creative team.
For any theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a monumental undertaking just because of its subject matter, much less the normal challenges of a Sondheim score and set of lyrics. In 2017 when our elected president repeatedly as a candidate encouraged his Second Amendment proponents to use their gun rights to voice their opinions, the subject matter of the musical is even more startling and unsettling. Sondheim and Weidman leave us with the words of the Balladeer that we can only hope that those leading our country and those enthralled by those leaders will pay heed: “Angry men don’t write the rules, and guns don’t right the wrongs.”
Rating: 5 E
Assassins continues as a Bay Area Musicals production through March 19 at the Alcazar Theatre at 650 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.bamsf.org/assassins/for performances Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.