BWW Review: ASSASSINS at Signature Theatre - You Will Get Goose Bumps!
It is not often one opens a theater program and on page one sees a letter from composer Stephen Sondheim. I had the privilege of attending the joint Jason Robert Brown and Stephen Sondheim concert on June 24, 2019 at Town Hall in New York City to raise funds for "Brady United Against Gun Violence" (see link below). It was a very moving evening of great theatrical music by two of this country's best composers.
A full page photo of Sondheim is on the inside cover of the ASSASSINS program. His letter opens with "Thanks for being here tonight". He goes on to say about Signature Theatre "...Tonight is a special evening for them...a celebration of their 30th Anniversary season...and this production of ASSASSINS marks the 30th of my musicals that they've produced." Underneath the letter is a list of all the Sondheim shows Signature has produced. Thankfully, I have seen a good percentage of them.
Mentioned in the Sondheim's opus "Look, I Made a Hat", Sondheim states that ASSASSINS is his favorite musical. It is a potpourri of songs sung by assassins (and almost assassins) of various American Presidents. Most will be familiar with the likes of John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and John Hinckley. The others are Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangara, Sam Byck, Sara Jane Moore, and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme.
The opening number in the show was supposed to be about the Kennedy assassination. But Book writer John Weidman (according to Sondheim's book) was only 17 when Kennedy was shot, his first real experience of loss that he found "devastating and bewildering". And it was James Lapine (book writer) who persuaded them not to begin the story there but to save Oswald for the show's climax .According to Sondheim, "This was as valuable a piece of theatrical advice as I've ever had."
Instead, the opening number goes from a rendition of "Hail to the Chief" to the gorgeous anthem-like "Everbody's Got the Right" to be happy sung by the terrific ensemble. I cannot stop humming this melody. Sam Ludwig is terrific as the Balladeer and later as Lee Harvey Oswald.
Vincent Kempski (Booth) and Ludwig sing the terrific duet "The Ballad of Booth".
Ian McEuen as Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot Franklin D. Roosevelt but instead killed the Mayor of Chicago.
"The Gun Song" is sung by Lawrence Redmond (Leon Czolgosz) who is responsible for the death of of William McKinley. It involves the making of guns along with Guiteau, Booth, and Sara Jane Moore (the always fabulous Tracy Lynn Olivera).
One of my favorite numbers is "Unworthy of Your Love" with John Hinckley (Evan Casey) and Lynette "Squeaky Fromme (Rachel Zambelli). Hinckley tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan while Fromme tried to shoot Gerald Ford.
Charles Guiteau (the amazing Bobby Smith) was responsible for shooting President James Garfield. Guiteau was disappointed he was not selected to be the Ambassador to France. Since I have visited his home in Ohio, I have a lot more respect for Garfield. Smith sings the gorgeous "I Am Going to the Lordy" as he climbs the steps (which light up after it descends from above) to his execution.
Certainly a highlight is Chistopher Bloch as Samuel Byck who wears an old Santa Clause suit who was unsuccessful in flying a plane into the Richard Nixon White House. Bloch shines in his monologues, especially the one about Leonard Bernstein.
Musical Director Jon Kalbfleisch does an admirable job with his terrific 8-piece orchestra.
The exquisite lighting (Chris Lee) provided just the right ambiance.
Set Designer James Kronzer has an old wooden wall which doubles to allow actors to enter and exit as well as to bring in sets. One cannot help notice on the right as you enter the theater the ominous distressed balcony from the Ford's Theatre with a tattered American flag hanging from the famous balcony where Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth (played by the glorious Vincent Kempski) leaped onto the stage after he did his deed. His Projections add greatly. At the end of the play there's the famous photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy on the back of the Lincoln Continental in which her husband who had just been shot and on the wooden wall the photo is eventually blown up to cover the entire stage.
This Tony-winning musical may not be everyone but I highly recommend it. It must be seen to be believed.
The program lists the following organizations that deal with Gun Violence Prevention:
Everytown for Gun Safety/Moms Demand Action - Everytown.org.
Brady United Against Gun Violence - bradyunited.org.
Sandy Hook Promise - Sandyhookpromise.org.
ASSASSINS Walking Tour - For a free walking tour on August 24 at 5 p.m.. For reservations, go to SigTheatre.org/Assassins-Free-Walking-Tour.
Inside Signature with Jon Kalbfleisch - It's FREE - September 5 from noon to 1 p.m. in the Mead Lobby. Director of Education David Zobell sits down at the piano with Resident Music Director Jon Kalbfleisch. Zobell will play through the score of ASSASSINS while discussing both Sondheim's music and the show's many musical influences.
Next up at Signature is ESCAPED ALONE Sept. 24 to Nov. 3.
A CHORUS LINE opens October 29 and runs to January 5. What a great idea for New Year's Eve.
THIS AND THAT
The Kennedy Center features opening of their new expansion with three above-ground pavilions and an outdoor concert stage. It runs September 7 to the 22. It's all FREE!!! Check out www.Kennedy-Center.org/REACH.
On September 11 you can attend a Master Class with composer Alan Menken.
There will be a concert that evening of Menken's Broadway music with the National Symphony at 8 p.m. and a rehearsal at 1:30 p.m. You will hear songs from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, ALADDIN, and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
You can get free tickets by calling 202-467-4600.
Also coming to the Kennedy Center are CATS (September 17 to October 6), WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME (September 11-22) and FOOTLOSE, part of the Broadway Center Stage program October 9 to the 13th.
Check out the Free Kickoff Party of Theatre Week.Org on Saturday, September 7 at Arena Stage from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be 35 theatres and performances all day. Theatre Week runs from Sept. 10 to 29, 2019 to get $15 and $35 theatre tickets to Ford's, Signature, Studio, and many more. Visit www.Theatreweek.org.