BWW Reviews: ASSASSINS Hit Their Mark

The Red Herring Productions' choice to stage Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS at the Riffe Center Studio One Theater couldn't have been more ironic. Less than a gunshot away from a stoic statue of William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz (played by Jay Rittberger) will assassinate McKinley for seven times between Oct. 31 and Nov. 9 and earn applause for it.

That sardonic twist seems to fit the ASSASSINS production perfectly. The two-hour musical runs the gamut from the satirical ("The Gun Song") to the comical ("Ballad of Guiteau") to the heartbreaking ("Something Just Broke") as it examines the lives of nine people who have one common thread. They all tried to kill the President of the United States.

Is it disturbing that a musical focuses on these tyrants? Well, the show did open on Halloween. Is it in poor taste? Considering the show opened 23 days before the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination, maybe. The show is also entertaining, intriguing and an acting/singing tour de force that shouldn't be missed. Director John Dranschak and musical director Pam Welsh-Huggins do a wonderful job of weaving together the many tangled webs of these various stories.

The great thing about ASSASSINS is itsSondheim's attention to details. Many of the moments of the show, from the price of Czolgosz's gun ($4.50 according to the show and Wikipedia) to the Santa Claus suit and taped rants to "friends" Leonard Bernstein, Hank Aaron and Jonas Salk of Samuel Byck (Todd Covert), are stripped from the history books.

It might be dangerous to say anything about a character who, as the "Ballad of Booth" suggests, "killed a country .. because of bad reviews." However Ian Short turns John Wilkes Booth into a sympathetic character devastated by the destruction of the South as well as an instigator for future assassins. When Giuseppe Zangara (Drew Eberly) complains to Booth about his perpetual stomach ache and all the different remedies he's tried, Booth slyly suggests "Have you thought about killing the president?" Zangara then attempts to shoot President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt but ends up killing Chicago mayor Anton Cerma instead.

Sara Jane Moore (Kim Garrison Hopcraft) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Kate Lingnofski) provide much of the laughter in their botched attempts at killing Pres. Gerald Ford. Hopcraft is brilliant as she "trains" for the attempt by shooting at the face of CoL. Sanders on KFC buckets of chicken and brings her child to a Ford rally because she couldn't get a sitter. Lingnofski is a perfect counterpart as Fromme, a spacey devotee of Charles Manson.

Another comic foil is Scott Wilson as Pres. James Garfield's assassin Charles Guiteau. Guiteau, a self-promoter who failed as an author, a preacher and a lawyer, seems more interested in selltng his book and becoming an ambassador to France than killing the president. After killing Garfield, he says his actions are justified by God in "Ballad of Guiteau:" The Lord's my employer and now He's my lawyer, so do what you dare. Charlie said, "Hell, If I am guilty, then God is as well. But God was acquitted and Charlie committed."

Slugging down beers in his soiled Santa suit, Covert has a strong stage presence as Byck. Covert tapes his rants to his hero Bernstein, raging against society one moment and singing the score from "West Side Story" the next. Byck's plan to kill Richard Nixon by crashing a 747 into the White House seems a little more disturbing in the post 9-11 world than it did when ASSASSINS debuted in 1990.

Christopher Storer was downright eerie in his protrayal of John Hinckley, who failed to kill President Ronald Reagan. Storer captures the slouch, the antisocial behaviors and the tics of Hinckley as well as his obession with Jodie Foster.

For me the highlight of the show was the transformation of Nick Lingnofski from the optimistic, go-lucky balladeer who navigates the audience through the stories to the brooding, sullen Lee Harvey Oswald at the show's dramatic conclusion.

Danielle Mann (Emma Goldman), Peter Spofforth (Billy) and Scott Willis (The Proprietor) help push the story along. A stellar ensemble of Dan Burleson, Ashley Frisch, Sean Lalik, Doug Mondell and Anne Marie Pinto add the support to the story. Pinto was particularly heartbreaking in the song "Something Just Broke" which tells what happens to the rest of the country in the aftermath of an assassin's work.

Backing up the performance is a solid seven-piece band featuring Jason Deran (trumpet and flugelhorn), Spencer Channell (keyboards), Alex Jewell (acoustic and electric guitar and bass), Tom Regouski (piccolo harmonica, clarinet and alto sax), Rick Soriano (percussion), Welsh-Huggins (trombone and mandolin) and Andrew Willis (keyboards).

Probably there are people out there who might be squeamish or repulsed at the subject matter and judge ASSASSINS before they see it. Many of those same people would think nothing about seeing a musical about a man who murders prostitutes (JEKYLL AND HYDE), bakes customers into pies (SWEENEY TODD) or feeds his boss to a hungry plant (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS).

Sondheim himself told the New York Times in 1991 "There are always people who think that certain subjects are not right for musicals. We're not going to apologize for dealing with such a volatile subject."

The Red Herring Cast has nothing to apologize for.

ASSASSINS runs Oct. 31-Nov. 3 and Nov. 7-9. at the Riffe Center Studio One Theater (77 S. High Street in Columbus). Performance times are 8 p.m. except for the Nov. 3 show which is at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance or pay-what-you-will at the door. Call 614-723-9116 or visit for details.

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From This Author Paul Batterson