BWW Reviews: New Rep Takes a Shot With ASSASSINS
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by John Weidman, Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.; Directed by Jim Petosa, Musical Direction by Matthew Stern, Choreographed by Judith Chaffee; Scenic Designer, Kamilla Kurmanbekova; Associate Scenic Designer, Jiyoung Han; Costume Designer, Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Designer, Jedidiah Roe; Sound Designer, Michael Policare; Stage Manager, Anna Burnham; Assistant Stage Manager, Leslie Sears
CAST (in alphabetical order): Peter S. Adams, Harrison Bryan, McCaela Donovan, Benjamin Evett, Evan Gambardella, Jesse Garlick, Paula Langton, Mark Linehan, Kevin Patrick Martin, Brad Daniel Peloquin, Casey Tucker, Patrick Varner
Performances through October 26 by New Repertory Theatre in the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org
Injustice is often in the eye of the beholder and here in America, the land of opportunity, it may be felt more harshly because of the expectation that hard work will result in achieving your dreams. When that doesn't happen, someone or something is to blame and the disappointed dreamer seeks a remedy or redemption. For most of us, that might involve serious introspection, recalibrating our plans, and striving for new goals. However, in the minds of a group of complex characters in the controversial Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman musical Assassins, the cure for what ails them is to kill a President. New Repertory Theatre puts these nine assassins or would-be assassins on display at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown in a well-produced ensemble piece directed by Artistic Director Jim Petosa, with musical direction by Matthew Stern.
In a play about the disenfranchised seeking to achieve fame or notoriety, it is antithetical that there is no star of the show, yet it is performed by an array of stars sublimating their individual recognition for the shared glory of the team. Leading man Benjamin Evett (Proprietor) and two of Boston's accomplished actresses, Paula Langton (Sara Jane Moore) and McCaela Donovan (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), are among the well-known players cast in key roles, yet they are as often in the background as the nine other company members. New Rep vets Peter S. Adams (Samuel Byck), Mark Linehan (John Wilkes Booth), and Brad Daniel Peloquin (Charles Guiteau) are joined by debuting artists Harrison Bryan (Giuseppe Zangara), Evan Gambardella (Balladeer, Lee Harvey Oswald), Jesse Garlick (Ensemble), Kevin Patrick Martin (Leon Czolgosz), Casey Tucker (Emma Goldman, Ensemble), and Patrick Varner (John Hinckley, Jr.), and everyone does a great job of staying engaged in character at all times.
The Proprietor is slightly reminiscent of the Emcee in Cabaret as he opens the show by enticing people to come into his shooting gallery, pick up a gun, and kill a President. Sporting a devilish grin, Evett is unctuous, slithery, and perhaps more dangerous than all of the assassins combined. "Everybody's Got the Right" introduces the characters and the theme that personal problems can be solved by picking up a gun (the NRA must love this show). Leading off the parade of malcontents is Booth, arguably the most famous member of the group, and even after his death, he reappears throughout the show to nudge the others into acting on their passion as he did and change the course of history.
The music varies to reflect the popular music of the eras depicted, from a Civil War folk song to a John Philip Sousa-style march to a 70s easy listening ballad. The New Rep cast has a terrific lineup of singers who handle the Sondheim score with aplomb. Martin's resonant voice gives extra gravity to "The Gun Song" and he blends in beautiful, choir-like harmony with Linehan and Peloquin. Donovan and Varner share an adversarial scene together before combining for the lilting "Unworthy of Your Love," pledging their love to Charlie Manson and Jodie Foster respectively. They both come across as more than a little crazy (in a good way), but also purely devoted to the objects of their affection. Gambardella has a folksy presence and pleasing voice when he sings the ballads of Booth, Czolgosz, and Guiteau, and skillfully transforms to play Oswald with a disturbing edge. Although his character doesn't have a song of his own, Adams can be heard filling in the lower register of the ensemble numbers. As Byck, he delivers a couple of lengthy monologues and makes him sound almost rational, until the part about crashing a plane into the White House.
Langton's frazzled appearance as Moore helps create her character, and she and Donovan show some comic chops when they share a great scene as the two would-be assassins of Gerald Ford. Bryan makes a strong impression as the Italian immigrant who missed his intended target FDR and killed Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago instead. After the chilling reimagining of November 22, 1963, Tucker and Garlick lead the ensemble in "Something Just Broke," as citizens recounting what they were doing when they heard the news about JFK's death. The latter song, which was added for the 1992 London production of Assassins, resonates with anyone who lived through that history changing event, as well as those who can remember where they were when later events like the Challenger explosion or 9-11 occurred.
Despite all of its violence and disturbing themes, Petosa and company find the humor in Assassins and are able to make the characters come alive as people with flaws, rather than monsters. Effectively designed (Kamilla Kurmanbekova, scenic; Chelsea Kerl, costume) and lit (Jedidiah Roe), sound designer Michael Policare provides well-timed gunshots and a good balance between the singers and the eight-piece orchestra with Stern at the piano. The book segments lag a bit, but when the music's playing, Assassins takes you for a wild ride down the midway.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (The Cast of Assassins)