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BWW Review: Street Theatre Company's ASSASSINS Assuredly Intrigues Audiences

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Stephen Sondheim's Assassins - his musical treatment of the history of presidential assassinations in America - remains one of the most compelling and intriguing works to be found in the musical theater canon, focusing on a veritable rogue's gallery of historic figures whose infamy lives on decades after their horrific actions first gained them the notoriety they so often pursued in their disparate, yet somehow weirdly connected, lives.

Now onstage at Nashville's Holy Trinity Community Church, in a scintillating and compelling new production from Street Theatre Company, the story of Assassins remains as potent as it ever was and director Jason Tucker and his outstanding ensemble of actors create a disquieting world of fame-seekers, half-crazed zealots and the misunderstood in order to bring the stories of these miscreants to life onstage.

Although their histories are rife with political intrigue, misguided ambitions and unchecked and wanton hatred, the characters in Assassins - if they are to succeed at all as musical theatre heroes, or anti-heroes to be more precise - they must somehow be likable, believable in their own despicable realities in order for audiences to take their stories to heart. They may be killers, after all, but you might want to have a beer with them if the opportunity were to present itself to you.

The responsibility of making these characters accessible to a musical theater audience lies in the script's structure and tone (at times overly earnest, but far more often entertaining and quirky), in the director's concept for his production and in the abilities of the superb actors charged with portraying these mysterious people who, for the most part, have lived along the borders and fringes of American history and culture.

While their names may or may not be household words depending upon who their victims were and when in American history their crimes were perpetrated, the people they killed (or attempted to kill) get a better read in history books. Assassins opens the door to the hidden tales of many of these people (Charles Guiteau, Giuseppe Zangara, Sam Byck and Leon Czolgosz, for example) and gives a fresh look at better known assassins like Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth - tell me why these types always have three names, much like serial killers? - and we are reminded of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, Sara Jane Moore and John Hinckley Jr., who are known primarily because their crimes happened during the television age.

Such is not the usual stuff of musical comedy, to be certain, but a musical treatment nonetheless makes them far more accessible and certainly more palatable to theater-goers who prefer their stories set to a memorable score and cleverly written book. And make no mistake about it: Assassins delivers all that and more for a discerning audience, thanks to the music and lyrics by Sondheim and the book by John Weidman that's far more Rodgers and Hammerstein-influenced than a cut-rate knock-off of a Ken Burns documentary. Yet there's plenty of history to be found in Assassins, enough to almost guarantee a rush to their Google machines for audience members not quite in the know about the individuals who people the fanciful world of Assassins.

The show's score - a delightful and somehow understated pastiche of Americana, ragtime, musical theater standards and whatever genre or rhythms fit the storytelling moment - is immensely hummable, ensuring its place in one's memory and it sets the ideal tone for the various stories contained therein. Musical director Randy Craft and his small-but-mighty orchestra perform Sondheim's sometimes lush, sometimes spare score with the requisite confidence and aplomb, providing the actors with many wondrous ruffles and flourishes with which to work.

Tucker's staging of the piece (it's presented in the alley formation in which the audience faces one another while the play's action plays out between them) serves the material well, involving the audience members in the altogether intimate and personal stories of the characters without making them feel uncomfortable or put upon (well, maybe once or twice when the action become inexorably powerful). Tucker's direction brings the stories to life with more than a little style and he allows his actors to show off their tremendous talents to the greatest effect.

Patrick Kramer, playing both the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, displays his strong presence without ever going over the top in his portrayal of JFK's killer. The result is a chilling, near transmogrifying performance that will linger in your mind long after the show's curtain. He is ably matched by Evan Taylor Williams who, as John Wilkes Booth, is alarmingly charming in his self-assured take on the man who launched the American bloodlust for shooting our presidents when we disagree with them. Although I suspect Booth would speak with a more refined, almost British accent (he was a noted Shakespearean actor, after all, from a famous theatrical family), Williams speaks his words with a dialect decidedly more Southern, if slightly cornpone.

Mike Baum, in a welcome return to the local stage, is wonderfully manic as Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James Garfield after his failed attempts to persuade the Republican administration to appoint him ambassador to France. Guiteau, as a character, is vastly more interesting (most likely given the fact that he's virtually unknown to American schoolchildren, of which I was one back in the day) and because Garfield is now revered as a potentially great president cut down in the prime of his life. Spend some time reading about the two men and you'll be fascinated by their shared story - the more you know, don't you know? Baum's performance of "I Am Going to the Lordy" is almost showstopping in its power and he elevates the tale with his superior focus.

Others among Tucker's cast who deserve every accolade possible include Jordan Ravellette, whose Leon Czolgosz is played with a down-to-earth earnestness that renders him surprisingly sympathetic; Curtis Reed plays John Hinckley Jr. as a troubled young man seeking some sense of validation; Taylor Kelly as Giuseppe Zangara, whose futile attempts to kill FDR resulted in his own death sentence; and Jack Chambers as the fiery Sam Byck, whose attempts to influence Leonard Bernstein rivaled his hatred of Richard Nixon.

Sara Catherine Wheatley very nearly steals every scene she is in with her pitch-perfect portrayal of Sara Jane Moore, the housewife-turned-would-be-assassin, who attempted to silence President Gerald R. Ford - whether her friendship with "Squeaky" Frome, the Manson "girl" who wanted to kill Ford in order to bring renewed notoriety to an incarcerated Charles Manson, was real or not. Frome, played seamlessly and unforgettably by Corinne Bupp, adds yet another stirring credit to the actress' burgeoning resume, as she slips easily and gracefully into her character.

Benny Jones, cast as The Proprietor (ostensibly to represent the greed and avarice of American political theater), gives a thoughtful reading of his own cast of characters, lending a sense of gravitas to the proceedings.

Kudos are due, as well, to the four women in the show's ensemble who portray a colorful cadre of characters - from fair-going children to various presidents and the like - for their understated work: Taylor Simon (cornering the local theater market with another performance as firebrand Emma Goldman), Christina Candilora, Morgan Lamberth and Mary Kate Hughes are nothing short of spectacular in their unheralded, but completely necessary, onstage turns.

  • Assassins. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Based upon an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr. Directed by Jason Tucker. Musical direction by Randy Craft. Presented by Street Theatre Company at Holy Trinity Community Church, 6727 Charlotte Pike, Nashville. Running through June 5. Running time: 100 minutes (with no intermission). For tickets and other details, go to www.streettheatrecompany.org.

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