BWW Reviews: ASSASSINS is a Captivating Look at the Dark Side of America
It's amazing how much of an impact the ignored, seemingly unimportant person can have on America. A couple men tossing tea into a harbor can spark a revolution. A woman refusing to give up her seat on the bus can inspire the country. A few guys tinkering in a garage can give birth to the computer industry.
The little guy can change the world, but as Assassins points out, those changes aren't always for the better. The fearless Stephen Sondheim musical, which plays Austin through April 20th, explores the dark flipside of American ideology by evaluating the motives of nine men and women who have succeeded in or attempted to assassinate a U.S. President. If we all have the right to be happy, what happens to that person who believes the death of the Commander in Chief is the key to their happiness? If we all have the right to be heard, what happens to the person who feels that killing the President is the only way to ensure that people will listen?
The show, brilliantly produced by Soubrette Productions, never answers the questions, but considering how there never is an answer to senseless violence or national tragedies, that seems fitting. Instead of answering questions, Assassins is more concerned with sparking conversation through careful character explorations, and it succeeds admirably. Sondheim's tunes and Weidman's text never vilify the characters. Instead, they paint fully human portraits of each of these infamous historical figures. We like them at times, we hate them at others. We even laugh with them. It's that humanness that makes Assassins riveting. It's easy to vilify these people, but it's horrifying to realize how similar they are to every other American citizen.
Director Philip Olson has assembled an incomparable cast that sinks its teeth into these challenging characters, and his direction has a pinpoint focus on creating well-rounded characters that we can feel both empathy and apathy for. In one of the show's supporting roles, Brian Losoya shines. As John Hinckley, he is stern, stoic, and brooding in one moment and downright gleeful in the next (never thought you'd see "gleeful" and "John Hinckley" in the same sentence, did you?) The fact that Losoya has one of the most polished, trained voices in the cast and gets to croon one of the show's most melodic, accessible songs is icing on the cake (and yes, I know "melodic" and "Sondheim" don't often go together either). Nathan Brockett gives a stellar performance as the assassins' devilish ringleader, John Wilkes Booth. Brockett plays Booth as a quintessential Southern gentleman, and there is a dignity and grace to his performance which is absolutely chilling. True to form, Austin favorite Andrew Cannata gives an exhilarating performance as the show's narrator, dubbed "The Balladeer." While most of his role is sung (outstandingly, I might add), Cannata also shows off his acting chops as he brings some all-American charm to the role.
But the show really belongs to a quartet of exceptional character actors. Meg Steiner and Julia Lorenz Olson play Squeaky Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, respectively, characters which John Weidman's book pairs up in two brilliant comedic scenes. Here, Fromme and Moore are played like an over-the-top Thelma and Louise, and Steiner and Olson excel at creating a wonderfully bizarre relationship between their characters. Robert Deike is magnificently funny as Sam Byck, the cranky alcoholic nutjob with a penchant for tape-recording his rambling rants to Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon. Aaron Glover also gives a delightfully comedic performance as Charles Guiteau, assassin to President James Garfield. Consistently optimistic (albeit delusional), Glover floats across the set (one of Ia Enstera's best) and lands every one of his character's many jokes.
A musical with subject matter as dark as Assassins may not, at least on the surface, sound like everyone's cup of tea, but it's one well worth seeing. Musicals rarely manage to tackle controversial topics as successfully as this one does, and casts and productions of this quality are hard to come by. The subject matter may sound off-putting, but it will grab you, engage you, and demand that you think.
Running time: Approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes, no intermission.
ASSASSINS, produced by Soubrette Productions, plays the Boyd Vance Theatre inside the George Washington Carver Center at 1165 Angelina St, Austin 78702 now thru Sunday, April 20th. Performances are Thursday - Sunday at 8pm. Tickets are $10-$25. For tickets and information, please visit www.soubretteproductions.com