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BWW Reviews: ASSASSINS Slays the Audience at Ephrata Performing Arts Center

If ever there were a disquieting topic for a musical, Presidential assassinations would be it. But Stephen Sondheim is no stranger to the world of the peculiar - SWEENEY TODD should prove that, as did ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. ASSASSINS may be the most peculiar of an odd lot, among his works, but that makes it no less entertaining or significant. Why do Americans assassinate Presidents? Is it to make political points? Is it because they're mentally unstable? Is it a cry for attention? Any or all of those things?

ASSASSINS, with music by Sondheim and book by John Weidman, was an Off-Broadway sellout when it opened at Playwrights Horizons in 1990, with a dazzling cast including Victor Garber, Terrence Mann, Lee Wilkof, and Debra Monk. When it moved, finally, to Broadway in 2004 - there was an extra delay thanks to the events of September 11, 2001, which it was felt made the show too sensitive to put on when originally scheduled - Neil Patrick Harris was on board as Lee Harvey Oswald, and Michael Cerveris won a Tony for his John Wilkes Booth. It's on stage at Ephrata Performing Arts Center now, and, fortuitously, the local talent directed by EPAC's Artistic Director, Edward Fernandez, are no slouches themselves when it comes to portraying America's favorite shooters, attempted shooters, and would-be plane-crashers.

A show about the disturbed need to kill people should probably not be peppy, cheerful, and tuneful. It shouldn't be wildly funny. It shouldn't have moments of complete and total adorability, certainly. But, on the other hand - why not? It's about a theme as all-American as baseball and music, and we have peppy, cheerful musicals about those. And, like some of the best American musical theatre, it has a happy carnival theme - although the carnival barker Proprietor (a delightful Evan Cooper) is urging his motley crew of patrons over to the Shoot To Win booth rather than the carousel.

Assisting the Proprietor and the Balladeer/narrator (Tim Reilly, in fine voice) is the assassin who started the whole business for America, John Wilkes Booth, who interacts with all of his succeeding killer and would-be killer associates to bring them together. "The Ballad of Booth," by the Balladeer and Booth, follows Booth's political motivations for assassinating Abraham Lincoln, while throwing about the canards often perpetuated about him - that he was motivated somehow by bad theatrical reviews, among others, which, if true, would make almost all actors suspect of violent crimes. Booth is played by Sean Young, who also played Booth in the 2000 EPAC production, and who gives the part a necessary gravitas. Of all the assassins besides Lee Harvey Oswald, he is the least comic, the most determined, and he sees Oswald's killing of John Kennedy as the apotheosis of Presidential assassination, possibly even greater than his own accomplishment. Young is a delight in the part.

Also a delight is Elizabeth Pattey, playing would-be-assassin Sarah Jane Moore, with a darkly comic routine that can only be embraced. Some of the finest moments on stage are with Pattey and Martha Marie Wasser, who plays Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (the two women who both failed to kill Gerald Ford), as a two-woman comedy schtick routine throughout the production that is utterly hilarious. Pattey's difficulties as Moore with her dog (fortunately a stuffed one) and her young son (played by Bailey Ammons), both of whom accompany her and her loaded gun, are the stuff of pure genius.

Wasser's Fromme and Sean Deffley's John Hinckley are perhaps the most chilling of the would-be assassins, as they chorus in "Unworthy of Your Love," since they are motivated by the most appalling reason - love. Fromme was one of Charles Manson's "girls", motivated by her love for Manson, and Hinckley was motivated by the need to win the attention and affection of his beloved, actress Jodie Foster. (Yeah, that's the way to win a girl's heart, for sure.)

Darren Wagner is wonderful as the now-neglected assassin of James Garfield, Charles Guiteau. In "The Ballad of Guiteau" Wagner shuffles off this mortal coil, and off to the hangman's noose, with a softshoe dance and cheerfully minstrel-show gospel tune, heading off "to meet the Lordy". The real Guiteau, probably quite psychopathic, was every bit as absurd as his on-stage character - lawyer, preacher, author of various political rants, survivor of a major ship collision, and would-be ambassador to several countries - and the portion of the show based on his assassination efforts indeed does justice to this unfortunate but truly colorful historical character.

The climax of the show is at its end, as assassins past - Booth, Guiteau, and others - and future - Moore, Fromme, Hinckley - converge on Lee Harvey Oswald, convinced that their own places as chapters, or at least footnotes, in history depend upon Oswald's successful assassination of John Kennedy. Alexander P. Bannon is a marvelously conflicted Oswald, uncertain of what to do or how to do it, unsure of his own motivations, and unaware of the place he would assume in the history of killings of heads of state. Young's Booth is at his most dynamic here, urging Oswald to make a difference in the understanding of assassins past and future.

Fernandez has assembled a particularly fine cast and pit orchestra, and put on a properly paced and inspired production of one of the most unusual of American musicals. One of the most disquieting points of it may be that indeed, the assassins are armed, and guns that do indeed go bang are waved around the stage with the necessarily reckless abandon that winds up with them being pointed all around the theatre, including, of course, in the general direction of the audience. There's that momentary frisson of "what if" that makes the show's point all the more compelling - of course those aren't really loaded firearms, but... what if... And that "what if" - what if killing the President will make my case, what if I succeed and nothing changes, what if my attempt to kill the President had succeeded, what if things don't go as I planned - or what if they do? - is the undercurrent of everything that happens in this show.

It's a devastatingly good production, and a show you won't often see, as opposed to one more production of GREASE or HELLO, DOLLY, and for both of those reasons, this is worth seeing promptly. At Ephrata Performing Arts Center through November 2. Call 717-733-7966 or visit ephrataperformingartscenter.com for tickets.

Photo courtesy of EPAC


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