Review: Bucket List Productions' 'Eerily Prescient' ASSASSINS: THE MUSICAL Opens at Nashville's Darkhorse Theater

Cat Eberwine-Directed Musical Continues Through July 23

By: Jul. 09, 2022
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Review: Bucket List Productions' 'Eerily Prescient' ASSASSINS: THE MUSICAL Opens at Nashville's Darkhorse Theater
Andy Kanies, Zach Williams, Dan Kevorkian, Dustin Davis, Shea Gordon,
Anna Carroll,Teal Davis, Micheal Walley and Melissa Silengo in Assassins: The Musical.
- photos by Rick Malkin

In theater, as in life, it's all in the timing: Bucket List Productions' Assassins: The Musical opened its Nashville run at Darkhorse Theater on Friday, July 8, the same day that former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe died by an assassin's gun. As news of Abe's assassination reverberated throughout the world yesterday, it underscored the timelessness and the unfortunate relevance of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical outside the oftentimes fanciful, yet eerily prescient, world of musical theater.

Assassins - Sondheim and Weidman's musical treatment of the legacy of presidential assassinations in America - compellingly remains one of American musical theater's most intriguing. Focusing on the rogue's gallery of historic figures whose infamy lives on years, even centuries, after their horrific actions initially gained them the notoriety they so often aspired to in their strangely connected, yet isolated, lives.

Director Cat Eberwine, in just her second directorial effort, brings together an equally disparate and intriguing cast to bring these historic figures, these infamous characters, to life with a theatrical flourish in Bucket List Productions' rendition of Assassins which, over the past 30 years, has become one of the region's favorite and most often staged musicals. In fact, in 1992 - only two years after the show opened off-Broadway - it was staged in Clarksville at the Roxy Regional Theatre and it was soon followed by a still-resonant production at the late and lamented Actor's Playhouse of Nashville, leading to the seven iterations of the show we've reviewed in the intervening three decades.

And like every performance we've seen since that first one, Assassins remains as potently impactful as ever, perhaps now even more than ever. With the current political tenor of the times in which we live in America (and which, obviously, is spreading worldwide) and in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol, the sense of despair and despondency that enveloped every other era in which the leader of the free world fell victim to violence is palpably threatening, unsettling and disquieting.

Review: Bucket List Productions' 'Eerily Prescient' ASSASSINS: THE MUSICAL Opens at Nashville's Darkhorse Theater Scenic designer Jim Manning captures the sense of ennui that we seem unable to shake off by setting the play's action in the well of the U.S. Senate on the date of the 2021 insurrection (costume designer Jennifer Kleine even clothes Assassins' "proprietor" - portrayed here by Will Henke - to evoke images of the Nashville resident, aka "Zip Tie Guy," arrested in the aftermath of January 6), somehow managing to capture the sense of chaos that pervades our memories of that day.

Using projections to capture similarly chaotic images of our nation's history that grounds the various scenes of violence that denote the work of this sometimes wacky, though always demonic and overzealous, collection of assassins, Eberwine gives her audience a relatable connection to the action that transpires onstage before them. Sometimes, however, the stage becomes so overcrowded - what with the assassins, the fictional characters and members of the ensemble - that it seems oppressive. Add to that a crowded theater full of people on opening night (a much-appreciated sight in a theater community still struggling to regain its footing in a Covid world) in an overheated venue and the atmosphere becomes redolent with dread and the weight of history that is now apparent in every moment of every day.

Eberwine's commendable cast - a deft blending of new faces and local theater veterans - effectively create a world in which their disparate characters can live and thrive, bringing these fame-seekers and zealots to life with authenticity and believability. It is essential that the often misunderstood and reviled characters be likable enough that musical theater audiences can relate to them, taking them to heart so that each of their stories somehow resonates. They may be disturbed, even insane, but they must also be likable enough to keep audiences engaged through the almost two hours in which the musical is performed.

Review: Bucket List Productions' 'Eerily Prescient' ASSASSINS: THE MUSICAL Opens at Nashville's Darkhorse Theater Obviously, the stories of Assassins are not the usual fodder for musical theater, but it must be confessed that a musicalization like this makes the characters more accessible for audiences who'd rather seen such tales told with a hummable musical score and a cleverly written, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, book. Assassins delivers the goods for a discerning theater audience, thanks to Sondheim's music and lyrics and Weidman's script that's clearly more influenced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern and even Irving Berlin, than it is an homage to documentary filmmakers. There's an abundance of history to be learned from Assassins, make no mistake about that (as you rush to check out what Google has to say about these people), but it's very entertaining in its edification.

Sondheim's score - sometimes lush, often spare - is brought to life with aplomb by musical director and conductor Noah Rice and his orchestra of seven, and delivers a pastiche of Americana, ragtime and musical theater idioms that is memorable.

The show's opening number - which is reprised at the end to signal the show's about to end in a production that has no intermission and a playbill that's accessible only online - "Everybody's Got the Right" exquisitely sets the somewhat off-kilter tone for the show and its musical motifs are heard throughout to ensure that you never become quite comfortable as the violence and body count continues to grow.

Micheal Walley and Melissa Silengo, as John Hickley Jr. and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, combine to deliver the score's most affecting number - "Unworthy of Your Love" - that underscores their characters with a pathos that remains unexpected (even after multiple viewings). Shea Gordon is quite good as The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, although changes to the script for the 2004 revival, muddies the plot development somewhat, and Dustin Davis is resolutely fine and "dandy" as 19th century stage star cum assassin John Wilkes Booth (whom, we are told, may have been the product of bad reviews).

Andy Kanies is perfectly cast as Charles Guiteau, the killer of President James Garfield, imbuing his character with a manic energy that belies his often sunny disposition. Anna Carroll garners many of the evening's most robust laughter with her performance as Sarah Jane Moore, the klutzy middle-aged woman who failed in her attempts to off Gerald R. Ford, and she and Silengo as Squeaky Fromme display a Keystone Kops readiness to upend any scene in which they are a vital part.

Likewise, Teal Davis is unnerving as Giuseppe Zangara, the would-be killer of FDR; Zach Williams gives an understated performance as Leon Czologsz, the man who shot William McKinley; and Dan Kevorkian commands attention as the fiery Sam Byck who, while wearing a Santa Claus costume, hopes to fly an airplane into the White House (presaging 9/11) to end Richard Nixon. Finally, Will Henke exudes stage presence as he moves about the stage, showing The Proprietor in action as he provides each of the would-be assassins with their firearms.

In addition, Daniel Vincent, Anthony Just, Jessica Heim, Cat Glidwell, Will Lasley and Willem Bragg complete Eberwine's ensemble to play a variety of Americans whose lives are somehow intertwined with the actions of the assassins.

Produced by Dave Davis' Bucket List Productions, this staging of Assassins: The Musical is the realization of a long-held dream to produce the show against the backdrop of these dispiriting political times in which we live and, rest assured, the musical has never seemed more relevant than it does today.

Assassins: The Musical. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Based upon an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr. Directed by Cat Eberwine. Musical direction by Noah Rice. Choreographed by Curtis Reed. Presented by Bucket List Productions. At Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville. Through July 23. Running time: 110 minutes (with no intermission). For tickets and other details, go to www.bucket-list-productions.com.




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