BWW Review: ASSASSINS Musically Explores the Minds of Those Who Attempted to Assassinate the President of the United States
The great genius of contemporary musical theater, creator of Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Company, Stephen Sondheim leads audiences on a tuneful revue of presidential assassins and would-be killers from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. The performance is guided by the Proprietor (brilliantly portrayed by Will Shure) who takes you through a most unusual musical history lesson in the form of a carnival game called "Shoot the Prez - Win a Prize" during which the sounds of each era accompany riveting portrayals of history's most impassioned and deranged. Thought-provoking and darkly delightful, ASSASSINS won five Tony Awards in its first revival on Broadway and remains one of the most controversial Broadway musicals ever written.
Given the current political climate, its themes are as relevant today as when the show was first performed with Sondheim's caustic analysis of the promise and failure of the American Dream through the ages still very relevant today. And while Presidential assassins don't seem to be hitting the mark any longer, surely the gun violence occurring in schools and other public places now reinforces the desperation of modern times in the face of lost employment, social media harassment, and falling apart families.
Be sure to arrive at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center early so you have plenty of time to read the program before the show begins as there is an abundance of chronological information on all the assassins and their would-be targets. There are several bits of trivia you will find helpful in explaining such things as why Charles Guiteau danced on the gallows as he faced execution for assassinating President James Garfield. In fact, his trial was the first in history to use the insanity defense, based on his deep-seated belief he was entitled to be named Ambassador to France when Garfield was elected. As portrayed by Vincent Perez, you will gain new understanding as to why Guiteau held so strongly to his beliefs.
Here's a brief summary of the Assassins and their stories, with the leader of the pack being failed actor John Wilkes Booth (Chris Kerrigan who mesmerizes in the role), the inventor of the Presidential Assassins Society after murdering Abraham Lincoln in a theater in 1865. Followed chronologically first by Guiteau, who was then followed by Leon Czolgosz (Ryan Peterson, who exemplifies a Polish immigrant frustrated with his lot in life) who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901 due to his anger at the rich and powerful's exploitation of the poor. It was after this assassination that Congress passed legislation officially charging the Secret Service with the protection of the President.
In 1933, Italian immigrant and bricklayer Guiseppe Zangara (Aro Tosi) killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cernack and wounded five others in his attempt to assassinate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Tosi delivers Zangara's "How I Saved Roosevelt" with all the comic irony required. After that in 1963, the infamous Lee Harvey Oswald (Levi Gotsman, whose story appears last in the show), supposedly assassinated President John F. Kennedy with that crime still unsolved to this day in the midst of accusations of political cover-ups.
In the 1970s, Samuel Byck (Michael German, dressed as Santa Claus) attempted to assassinate President Richard Nixon, followed by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Jackie Bianchi, the perfect flower child) who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford after being a follower of Charles Manson. Sara Jane Moore (convincingly portrayed as a frumpy housewife by Kathleen Silverman) was a former FBI informant who also attempted to assassinate President Ford seventeen days later.
And of course, in 1981, John Hinckley (Kevin Ellis) attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan to gain the respect and love of actress Jodie Foster. He was the only assassin to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was recently released from a mental hospital to live with his mother in New England. Let's hope we have heard the last of him.
Each of the actors portraying these assassins are wonderful actors/singers, costumed perfectly by Ken Patton. Director/Producer Fred Helsel is to be commended for gathering a talented team of technical support to make this production one to sit up and take notice of during this election year. Special kudos to choreographer Becky Castells for her inventive small stage ensemble dance numbers, especially during the triumphant "Another National Anthem" production number. Musical director Gary Poirot leads the onstage band without drowning out the singers, with the ensemble made up of Michael Chandler, Carla Lombardo Bambo, Kristine Gilreath, Genevieve Levin and Jared Price acting as historical everyday folks caught in the most unusual of circumstances during their lifetimes.
ASSASSINS performances continue through October 16, 2016 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, located at 3050 E. Los Angeles Avenue. Tickets are available online at www.simi-arts.org or by calling the box office at 805-583-7900 or at the Center's box office between Noon and 6:00 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Tickets are $24 for Adults, $20 for Seniors 60 and above and Students. Due to the mature themes, this production is not recommended for young children.
Photo credit JON NEFTALI PHOTOGRAPHY
Assassins (L to R) Charles Guiteau (Vincent Perez), Samuel Byck (Michael German), Leon Czolgosz (Ryan Peterson), John Wilkes Booth (Chris Kerrigan) Sara Jane Moore (Kathleen Silverman), John Hinckley (Kevin Ellis), Lynette Fromme (Jackee Bianchi), Giusseppe Zangara (Auro Tosi).
Assassins (L to R) Sara Jane Moore (Kathleen Silverman), Leon Czolgosz (Ryan Peterson), John Hinckley (Kevin Ellis), Giusseppe Zangara (Auro Tosi) John Wilkes Booth (Chris Kerrigan) , Lee Harvey Oswald (Levi Gotsman), Samuel Byck (Michael German), Lynette Fromme (Jackee Bianchi), Charles Guiteau (Vincent Perez).
Auro Tossi (Center) as Giusseppe Zangara with ensemble of (L to R) Carla Lombardo Bambo, Michael Chandler, Kristine Gilreath, Jared Price, Genevieve Levin surrounding.