BWW Review: Rarely Produced ASSASSINS a Meaty Hit at Pico Playhouse

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Assassins/book by John Weidman; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim/presented by Red Blanket Productions with Punk Monkey Productions at the Pico Playhouse/directed by Dan Fishbach/thru September 27

A word or two before I start this review. In the film Judgement at Nuremberg, Spencer Tracy who plays the judge of the tribunals, states emphatically at the end that in the light of today's changing values, condoning these actions may seem logical, but it is not - or never is - right. Assassination is murder pure and simple. I will never condone it, even though I may understand the circumstances. I may laugh and enjoy Assassins and weigh the killers' motivations, but I will never accept them.

In their musical Assassins, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman expect us to reflect on the American dream and its adverse effects. For many, it's often a struggle for survival. Within this framework, do we have a strict code of morality?Where do we draw the line? Should we support the losers, those that go against the grain and turn right into wrong? We are told that all Americans have equal rights; does that include those who assassinate a President? There is a thin line between a spectator and a perpetrator: they are both cut from the same mold. John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim quite brilliantly show assassins throughout American history - those that succeeded and those that failed. They expect us to draw our own conclusions from their actions. The current mounting at the Pico Playhouse boasts a deliciously thrilling cast and stylized direction from Dan Fishbach.

Motivation for the crimes is ever so carefully explored. It is most fascinating to note that assassins were motivated in many different ways: some by money, some by social status; some thought they were saving the United States from injustice by casting out its tyrannical leader like John Wilkes Booth (Travis Rhett Wilson), and still others just wanted some lasting fame or recognition like Lee Harvey Oswald (Sean Benedict) - or so we were led to believe. What do they have in common? They were hated, but are forever remembered - more readily in fact that many illustrious celebrities! Look how Bonnie & Clyde took the country by storm with their killing spree. They became cult heroes, and thus it is with presidential assassins as well. There is no finer scene in John Weidman's loosely organized book of the show than when Booth appears to Oswald and "shows him the way to the future" by encouraging him to kill JFK, with a bevy of hopeful future assassins looking on, including Samuel Byck (David Gallic), Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Claire Adams) and John Hinckley (Zach Lutsky). It's a chilling moment right after the dynamic "Another National Anthem" in which we witness a prayer for the continued perpetration of crime. With our current struggles against gun control, it makes us realize just how challenging - no, impossible - the road will be.

Fishbach guides his actors economically yet fully with the help of choreographer Lili Fuller in this grande and bold parade across the small stage. They march, they dance, they sing with gusto, and somehow we accept their shameless audacity as if they were the new champions of our time. Standouts include Benedict in the quiet portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald; just the opposite for Gallic who is obscenely and funny as Samuel Byck. Byck concocted a plan to attack Nixon's white house by flying a plane into it. Dressed in a Santa Claus suit, Byck records his plot into a tape recorder as he becomes increasingly, furiously inebriated, holding back nothing. Gallic is terrific in this key role with whom audience may readily identify and become sympathetic. Wilson is big and boastful as John Wilkes Booth, as is Jeff Alan-Lee as Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield. Adams is just sensational as "Squeaky Fromme", the hippie teen who fell in love with Charles Manson. She is totally uninhibited in her portrayal of the hypnotized, victimized girl. Her scene with Janna Cardia as Sara Jane Moore - both characters tried to kill Gerald Ford, - is hilarious. Cardia is a hoot throughout as she tries to teach herself how to fire a gun, and ends up killing her own dog, but not the president. Also notable are the always versatile Selah Victor as the tough feminist Emma Goldman, Adam Hunter Howard as Leon Czolgosz, Jason Peter Kennedy as Giuseppe Zangara, Bryan Vickery as David Herold and Paul Wong as Gerald Ford . Nick Tubbs makes a fine Balladeer, and Cole Cuomo a sturdy Proprietor. Add on Dominic DeArmey and Sandy Mansson. Many of the actors serve as a singing/.dancing ensemble when not playing out specific roles. All are to be highly commended.

It's always nice to have a live band onstage, conducted by Anthony Lucca. Sondheim's music is intellectually and emotionally potent in "Another National Anthem", "Everybody's Got the Right", "Something Just Broke", especially meaningful for those like myself who lived through that cold Friday in November of 1963 when JFK met his maker, and the very popular "Unworthy of Your Love". Equal praise to Alex Kolmanovsky for his dark set design with holes on each side allowing us to see only the heads of onlookers in crowds. Sometimes, this becomes appropriately eerie and downright creepy. Bravo as well to Stephanie Beth Petagno for her fine costumes.

Assassins had only moderate success on New York in 1991, but it is much better suited to a small theatre. Psychological drama needs intimacy to reap its full-fledged effect. Producers Dan Fishbach and Zach Lutsky courageously and memorably make Assassins their own. It may not be one of Sondheim's best musicals, but it is surely thought-provoking, bizarrely entertaining and worthy of your attention; this production of the musical is as good as it gets.

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From This Author Don Grigware