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BWW Review: ASSASSINS Shoots to Thrill

East West Players takes dead aim at a Sondheim classic

BWW Review: ASSASSINS Shoots to Thrill

"What a wonder is a gun!

What a versatile invention!

First of all, when you've a gun -

Everybody pays attention."

  • Charles Guiteau, "The Gun Song," ASSASSINS

Los Angeles's East West Players has a long and vibrant history with the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, making it hardly a news flash that the company would both take a - er - shot at the composer's controversial 1990 work, ASSASSINS, and end up bringing it off so splendidly. Snehal Desai's production at the company's David Henry Hwang Theatre in Little Tokyo is a winner - visually, musically and across the board. From the pre-curtain eye candy of Anna Robinson's wooden box set - a kind of macro-version of the action figure carrying case placed center stage - to the opening carnie strains of "Hail to the Chief" banged out by Marc Macalintal's house band, Desai's production is end-to-end joyfulness. Of course, you'll need a certain sense of humor for maximum enjoyment of this given that every single character in this offbeat work is a person who successfully murdered a president of the United States or attempted to. "Whee!" right?

Well, sure. Sondheim and book writer John Weidman (who had previously teamed to create PACIFIC OVERTURES in 1975) examine the kinks, cracks and motivations of individuals like John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinkley, Jr. and others like them. The conceit is that, starting with Booth, America with its spirit of possibility has engendered a legacy of fractured hopes and soiled dreams among these arms-bearing misfits, some of whom craved fame, others love, others acceptance. Their collective motivations are introduced in the opening number "Everybody's Got the Right" and bookended about an hour later in "Another National Anthem. "There are those who love regretting/There are those who love extremes/there are those who thrive on chaos and despair," sings the show's balladeer (played at EWP by Adam Kaokept). There are those who keep forgetting that the country's built on dreams..."

Like all EWP productions, Desai's ASSASSINS has the added intrigue of its color-blind, multi-racial cast which allows actors of multiple ethnicities to play an array of historical figures, all of whom are White. The casting of Trance Thompson, a Black actor, as Booth is an eyebrow-raiser since the character sings about the destruction of the Union as a result of that "vulgar high and mighty (expletive) lover" Abraham Lincoln. Thompson's overall work here is solid if unspectacular. Booth is the play's angriest and most impassioned character and Thompson certainly lends him suitable gravitas.

Other members of the assassins lineup are written - and played - with angst. With history and biographical documents as a loose guideline, Weidman has constructed a series of scenes that allow people from different historical periods to interact and sing with each other in a kind of post-period limbo. So encounters between William McKinley's killer Leon Czolgosz (George Xavier) and Emma Goldman (Kym Miller) or Manson family members Sarah Jane Moore (Joan Almedilla) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Astonica Bhagat Lyman) can be rendered either with straight-on earnestness or plenty of broadness, as the case may be. Almedilla is clearly having a high old time as the bumbling, trigger-Happy Moore (would-be assassin of Gerald Ford) who may set a record for number of accidental revolver discharges in the space of 90 minutes.

Of all the assassins, Moore is the looniest and Almedilla basically makes her a buffoon. Not far behind on the camp scale is Christopher Chen's Samuel Byck who, while wearing a grimy Santa Claus suit, unleashes two ranting monologs, one to Leonard Bernstein and the other to Richard Nixon. As James Garfield's murderer, Charles Guiteau, a gleeful Gedde Watanabe wisely doesn't oversell the character's nuttiness. His rendering of "The Ballad of Guiteau" is frisky and memorable.

Deshai's company handles the tonal shifts between comedy and seriousness, which can spike from song to song and scene to scene. As twisted as "Unworthy of Your Love," that Fromme and John Hinkley, Jr. (Arvin Lee) direct to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, may be, it's also a beautiful ballad. Kaokept's Balladeer and Max Torrez's Proprietor skillfully serve as our tour guides. When Kaokept - a versatile singer adapt at multiple styles - has to lay down his guitar and step into the Texas School Book Depository to become a conflicted Lee Harvey Oswald, he pulls off the transformation with brio.

ASSASSINS was next up on East West Players' season agenda when the pandemic hit and the play was already back in the zeitgeist. The theatrical shutdown included a couple of virtual 30-year reunions of the musical's original Playwrights Horizons cast. COVID also temporarily derailed the Classic Stage Co. revival directed by John Doyle which opened in November of 2021, a few weeks before the death of Sondheim.

We may have lost the composer, but thanks to ambitious and highly skilled companies like the one assembled at East West Players, the melodies of these misfits play joyfully on.

ASSASSINS plays through March 20 at 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.(323) 609-7006,

Photo of the company of ASSASSINS by Steven Lam.

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