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BWW Reviews: Vindicating the ASSASSINS

Some of the nation's most notorious villains were brought back to life on Sunday at the matinee of Four Seasons Theatre's rendition of Assassins. Stephen Sondheim's history lesson slash musical, like much of his other work, reminds audiences that the world is not black and white.

Michael Herold as the Proprietor, though ringmaster would be a more fitting title, opens the show as one would a circus. A fitting parallel since the characters are so dissimilar from one another but have one end game in mind - fame. They want to matter. Just like those who would run off with the circus were simply looking for an outlet, these folks needed to feel that they matter. After all, in 'the land of the free', why shouldn't every person's story be heard? That's where this show, first staged in 1990, finds its cultural relevance in the end of 2014.

Scott Haden, as the ensemble's narrator Balladeer, is the one tasked with the trickiest, quickest lines by Sondheim that the composer is famous for creating. However, Haden is able to conquer the difficulties with sheer perfection. Akin to the words hammered out by Harold Hill in The Music Man, Haden is crystal clear with every note - something that must be done in order for Balladeer's points to get across. He is the one divulging the truths behind the infamous individuals so he needs to be as precise as Haden, with the dramatic range that the performer possesses as well.

Assassins with Proprieter (top) and Balladeer (far right).
Photo provided by Four Seasons Theatre

Main perpetrator of criminal acts throughout the show is one John Wilkes Booth, played by Christiaan Smith Kotlarek, is the brains behind the assassination operation as well as an embittered actor who (supposedly) took out his anger on late President Lincoln. He explains to his fellow assassins that "everybody's got the right to be happy" even if that happiness is not understood by the outside world. Kotlarek's charm, height, and powerhouse vocal talent leaves the other characters (as well as his audience) in complete awe. His description of his crime culminates into a diatribe of recreating the America that he loved instead of watching it fall apart in civil war.

At the other end of the spectrum, Katie Bates' Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme leaves the theatre in stitches. Her absurd notions about Charles Manson's divinity cannot be taken seriously by anyone. That does not deter Bates' intense emotional involvement in the role, however, as her continually changing expressions argue both her character's emotional instability as well as her deep love for Charlie. Bates' quivering voice during the song "Unworthy of Your Love" sent shivers. Not only did her demeanor in her moment of weakness change completely, her voice remained as clear as day despite the additional vibrato for the shaking effect.

Sarah Marty, Artistic Director of Four Seasons, is blessed to have a cast of such capable actors for a show like Assassins. The mesmerizing use of shadow to obscure the faces of the presidents or individuals of interest is an interesting piece to a historical puzzle - an artistic choice thought up by Director Jessica Lanius, set designer Christopher Dunham, and lighting designer Jason Fassl. This extra element of illusion, to play off of the circus motif established by Lanius for the run of the show, creates one more level of intrigue. John Hinckley's fascination with Jodie Foster, for instance, is blurred to those observing. They know that is who is being portrayed through dance behind the curtain, but cannot see past that. It reminds audiences that, despite what historical records may say, no one truly knows what was seen or imagined by the individuals committing the crimes. A reminder that attempting to understand the unimaginable is what can prevent it from occurring again.

Bates (left) and Meghan Randolph ad Sara Jane Moore (right).
Photo provided by: Four Seasons Theatre

Something that present day Americans, amidst public shootings or acts of seemingly random violence, are all too familiar with though they often do not understand it.

Which is precisely why the song "Something Just Broke", added in 2004 for the revival of the show, is so unbelievably heart wrenching. Audio of very recent broadcasts about attempted assassinations or violence brings the message home. The bystanders have suddenly lost their theatrical sparkle and don faces of unadulterated fear. Announcing that they remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when the news broke. Something that many Americans can relate to when discussing the September 11th attacks - that memory is ingrained forever.

In the way he always does, Sondheim demonstrates an idea brought about by his 1986 musical Into the Woods, "witches can be right, giants can be good. Who decides what's right? Who decides what's good?"

To Booth, eliminating Lincoln meant bringing back the steadfast America he loved.

To Samuel Byck, killing Richard Nixon meant finally feeling like his life held meaning.

To the audiences fortunate enough to see this production of Assassins, being in the audience means finally seeing a different point of view.

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From This Author Amanda Finn

Amanda lives in Madison, WI and joined BWW in the spring of 2014. She has relished every moment spent in a theatre since then. She (read more...)