BWW Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's Latest Iteration of ASSASSINS is Brilliant and Chilling
Ryan Bowie Directs Creative, Imaginative Production
There comes a moment quite near the conclusion of Roxy Regional Theatre's production of Assassins that is both brilliant and chilling, perfectly encapsulating what the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical is all about.
When actor Matthew Combs - who so evocatively plays Lee Harvey Oswald as to cause the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up the moment he utters his first line - has fired the fatal shot that kills President John F. Kennedy on Dealey Plaza in Dallas on that November day in 1963, director Ryan Bowie (who doubles as projections designer) brings the stage lights down in order to show the controversial Abraham Zapruder film of the assassination on Combs' chest. The film is framed tight against the white of Oswald's white t-shirt so that you can see Jacqueline Kennedy leaning over the back of the presidential limousine to grab the hand of Secret Service agent Clint Hill to help pull him into the backseat of the car where her husband lay dying. Gradually, the whole of the stage is filled with images from the film, which was shot on a Bell & Howell home movie camera, ultimately engulfing the entire theater in the horror of that moment in American history which so many of us can recall in alarming detail.
The closing tableau, staged by Bowie (who also sings the role of The Balladeer in Assassins), seems to mitigate the circumstances through which the audience has gotten to know the motley crew of killers and wannabes - the people who, for whatever reasons they may have had, have plotted to kill the leader of the free world in an effort to avenge some perceived slight or to gain notoriety for themselves through such a heinous act. The Sondheim-Weidman musical, as clever and creative as it is (and, trust me, it is all that and much, much more) needs a coda such as that designed by Bowie in order that we not become too inured by the prevalence of hatred and distrust that permeates the political discourse now and, it becomes apparent, as things have always been in this uniquely American experience in democracy.
If not for the intervening two hours since the curtain first rose (metaphorically, of course) on Assassins, that final scene would be reason enough to see the show. But thanks to Bowie's imagination and attention to detail, the production is filled with reasons to see it - even if the show closes tonight and we regret that life has gotten in the way of our published review of the superb production that will now drift away into the ether, to make way for the eighth annual presentation of The Rocky Horror Show at the Clarksville professional theatre.
We remember fondly an earlier production of Assassins at the theater on Franklin Street in downtown Clarksville from the early 1990s: Benny Jones, who plays Samuel Byck (the unsuccessful assassin who plotted to kill Richard Nixon by crashing a plane into the White House) in the current iteration, was cast as John Wilkes Booth in that earlier staging, and that production in 1992 marked the first of several homegrown productions of the show to be presented by various theater groups in middle Tennessee since then (including Circle Players' 2001 version during which 9/11 happened and Street Theatre Company's 2015 production in which Jones was part of the ensemble). Therefore, we feel uniquely qualified to say this: 2019's Assassins is as good as it gets.
Perhaps we are just fanatically drawn to Sondheim's musicals - noted for their lush orchestrations, unique musical idioms and cleverly written librettos - and that allows us to watch Assassins with a far gentler critical eye (we suspect that's what Newsies aficionados would argue), but in reality nothing could be quite so opposite the truth. Because we revere Sondheim's work (although not slavishly), we tend to be more discerning. The Roxy's production of Assassins isn't perfect, but it's entertaining, sometimes daring and oftentimes compelling.
Throughout the show, we are introduced to the rogues' gallery of presidential killers and wannabes - from Booth to Oswald, with Charles Guiteau (who killed James Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (who killed William McKinley), Giuseppe Zangara (who attempted to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt), John Hinckley (who shot Ronald Reagan), Sara Jane Moore and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (both of whom tried to kill Gerald Ford) and the aforementioned Byck throw in for good measure and for the edification of those people who failed to pay attention in high school American history class. As their twisted version of history becomes clearer, so too does the reasoning for their cataclysmic decisions that changed the course of our times.
Geoffrey F. Belliston is good as Booth, strutting and preening about the stage like the matinee idol he portrays, and Brian Best gives a strong performance as the manic Guiteau, practically chewing every piece of scenery in the process as he shows the depth of the assassin's mental illness. Ian Alexander Erbe, a veteran of numerous Roxy productions, gives a stand-out performance as Czolgosz, and Combs completes the murderous quartet with his multi-dimensional portrayal of Oswald.
Mike Kinzer is all barely repressed rage in his incredibly intense performance as Zangara, and Jones is believable as a kind of world-weary everyman as Byck. Donald Groves is perfectly cast as Hinckley, as are Melody Lieberman as Sarah Jane Moore and Caitie L. Moss as Squeaky Fromme. In fact, Groves and Moss combine for what may be the production's best musical number, the always haunting "Unworthy of Your Love" in which they pledge their devotion to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively.
Bowie continues to impress with the never-ending range of his abilities as artistic director of The Roxy. In this production alone, he plays the Balladeer with an easy grace, while directing the productions, designing it (he is responsible for projections and costumes) and infusing it with so much energy that one cannot help but wonder how he does it all. In fact, if you need a reason for buying a ticket to a show, any show, at The Roxy - well, there you have it!
Assassins. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Based on an idea by John Gilbert Jr. Directed by Ryan Bowie. Presented by The Roxy Regional Theatre, 100 Franklin Street, Clarksville. Through October 19. For more information, go to www.roxyregionaltheatre.org or call (931) 645-7699. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).