BWW Review: Lyric Theatre's ASSASSINS Explodes in a Poignant and Timely Production
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma opens their 2017 Season with Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS. This 1990 musical has never had a professional production in Oklahoma City until now; I can see how the material could be challenging for some Oklahoma audiences, but artistic director Michael Baron's production pushes the right buttons without going too far over the edge.
Filled with a cast of Lyric regulars - with a few fresh faces added into the mix - the ensemble almost never leaves the stage. At an hour and forty-five minutes, with no intermission, that would be a long haul for any actor...but with this particular intense subject matter at hand, it becomes especially commendable for this group.
ASSASSINS would best be described as historical fiction; each character is based on a real person who attempted or succeeded in killing a president of the United States. Most productions of Sondheim's deceptively complex work are set in a carnival-like shooting gallery, adding a sense of whimsy to the otherwise dire situation. Baron, however, has changed the setting for this production: I won't give away the surprise, but this new environment increases our familiarity with these people whom we could easily write off. It is startling to find how recognizable we find these characters: to see the pain, loss, and instability that plagued the lives of these criminals, we begin to find more similarities than differences...they are our neighbors, our relatives, or - unnervingly - ourselves.
Sondheim wisely includes many moments of comedy inside the bleak reality of the subject matter, and they are welcomed. Particular comedic shout-outs go to D. Lance Marsh as Samuel Byck and Natalya Ferch as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme...while neither character was, thankfully, successful in their assassination attempts, the fervor in which they worked to make it happen provides some of the biggest laughs of the show. The production culminates in the final powerful scene with, arguably the most famous assassin of the group, Lee Harvey Oswald. Matthew Alvin Brown shines in this scene, humanizing a figure most of us would easily write off as a "monster" or crazy. The revelation of the relatability and humanity of these tortured souls is powerful.
Lyric provides an optional talk-back after each performance, ensuring that any audience members who experience feelings or thoughts that arise from the show have the chance to talk and work through them. This opportunity to share is a foundation of political theatre at its finest: igniting questions rather than providing answers.
I was surprised to realize how many presidential assassination attempts we have had in recent years. Everyone knows about the "big ones" in Lincoln and Kennedy, but in the 20th Century alone, there have more than 10 attempts to kill a leader of the free world. Sadly, with the current divisive political climate, Lyric's production seems more timely than ever. If you're looking for a fluffy night of theatrical escapism, then ASSASSINS is not your show. However, if you're interested in a work of art that challenges perceptions and expands horizons, you need look no further.
ASSASSINS runs February 8th-26th, 2017 at the Plaza Theatre. For tickets, call 405-524-9312 or CLICK HERE to purchase online.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by John Weidman; based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.; presented by Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma; directed by Michael Baron; music direction by David Dabbon; lighting design by Art Whaley; sound design by Anthony Risi; scenic and props design by Dawn Drake; costume design by Jeffrey Meek; production stage manager, Rickelle Williams.
WITH: Ryan Blagg (Giuseppe Zangara), Matthew Alvin Brown (Balladeer / Lee Harvey Oswald), Lyn Cramer (Sara Jane Moore), Natalya Ferch (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Mateja Govich (John Wilkes Booth), Mark Jammal (John Hinckley), Justin Larman (Charles Guiteau), Vince Leseney (The Proprietor), D. Lance Marsh (Samuel Byck), and Greg White (Leon Czolgosz).
Photos by KO Rinearson