Review: ASSASSINS at Stray Cat Theatre

The production, directed by Ron May, runs through May 21st at Tempe Center for the Arts Studio Theatre.

By: May. 10, 2022

Review: ASSASSINS at Stray Cat Theatre

We are again delighted to welcome David Appleford as a guest contributor to the pages of BroadwayWorld ~ as always, featuring his distinctive, well-balanced, and intelligent perspective on theatre. In this case, he shines the light on Stray Cat Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS, directed by Ron May. The show runs through May 21st at Tempe Center for the Arts.

Here now ~ From the keyboard of David Appleford:

In the 1969 film version of Joan Littlewood's dark, satiric, musical revue, Oh! What a Lovely War, England's Brighton Pier became the playground for the battles and conflicts of World War I. An admission ticket to the pier bought you a seat at the front line where an MC would guide you to the various sideshows and rides, each presenting an opportunity to witness and become a part of the madness of The Great War.

For Stephen Sondheim's dark, satiric, musical revue, ASSASSINS, now playing at Tempe Center for the Arts in a superbly challenging Stray Cat Theatre production, it's possible that twenty years later, inspired by the film, book writer John Weidman took that idea, created an American setting in which to present Sondheim's very American score, and framed it into something purely Americana: the traveling carnival.

Here, instead of a friendly but sinister MC guiding you to the sideshows, Weidman creates The Proprietor (Joey Morrison), a carnival barker who greets each of the tormented souls with whom we are about to spend the next ninety minutes. Individually he encourages them to satisfy their issues by picking up a gun in the shooting gallery. "C'mere," the Proprietor sings, "And kill a president!"

Throughout America's history, to date, there have been thirteen assassination attempts on the life of the President of the United States. Four succeeded. ASSASSINS focuses its attention on nine of these people, none of whom have anything in common; they come from different times with different backgrounds. Yet, upon a closer examination, aided by the Proprietor insisting that "Everybody's got the right to their dreams, you quickly sense that each of the nine do share one thing in common - a desperate, dangerous, driving desire that comes with a claim: dreams must come true. And if they don't, then blame needs to be made.

At first glance, mounting a Broadway musical as part of a Stray Cat lineup is not what its dedicated, culture-savvy audience expects to see. To quote its production philosophies, the company wants to showcase vital, contemporary material - indie theatre that is quirky, edgy, and irreverent. Generally speaking, musical theatre is not always the route to achieving those lofty but worthy goals. But ASSASSINS is different. Sometimes described as the musical for those who don't necessarily care for musicals, here's why it works.

Under Ron May's direction with assistance from Brandon Caraco, the musical is presented as an elaborately staged revue. Scenic Designer Douglas A. Clarke's enormous wooden shooting gallery set, complete with an upper-level balcony, stretches the full width of the stage, while bunting and colorful lights reach out into the house as if both the theatre and everyone in it are all part of the carnival. As with Variety Hall skits of the past, John Weidman writes his short scenes in several different forms, with styles ranging from melodrama to comedy, to burlesque, punctuated and enhanced by Sondheim's theatrically gifted lyrics and emotionally soaring music.

The exchange between Sara Jane Moore (Libby Mueller) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (normally credited to Jasmyn Gade, but played at the last minute on Sunday's matinee by understudy Savoy Antoinette who, given the emergency circumstances, was strikingly good) is particularly funny, while Charles Guiteau's boasts of his perceived achievements (portrayed stunningly well by Nicholas Hambruch) underline the heartbreaking delusion of a man convinced of his entitlement and knows exactly who to blame for the failures. However, pinpointing a specific tone to the score is not quite so easy.

For ASSASSINS, Sondheim incorporates familiar sounds of the country's musical past, performed here by a six-member band under the direction of Steve Hilderbrand. Every new segment, every song is presented as a composition of different styles, all made appropriate for whatever moment in history we're witnessing.

At rise, we hear the familiar opening to Hail to the Chief. After a few bars, the music suddenly develops into a waltz, introducing us to the carnival setting in front of the shooting gallery. When a character called The Balladeer (Vinny Chavez) enters and comments on events, his style is early American folk; "Someone tell the story, Someone sing the song." And when John Hinckley (Anand Khalsa) and Squeaky Fromme sing the duet Unworthy of Your Love, it's accompanied by a James Taylor/Cat Stevens acoustic guitar arrangement with pleasing, melodic harmonies.

Sondheim writes lyrics in the way a playwright writes dialog. Every word has its place; every syllable has its singular note. The song will always further the action and bring you closer to a deeper understanding of the thoughts and feelings of the character singing it. With ASSASSINS, the lyrics invite you to consider the inner torment that each of the nine leading characters experience, but from a new perspective. It doesn't sympathize with them - these are characters with anguished emotions living on the edge of sanity - but it does help you understand the reasons behind their actions, no matter how skewed their logic. They believe in their entitlement, but as the Balladeer observes when summarizing John Wilkes Booth (Damon J Bolling) in song, he states, "Some called him noble, some said yellow. What he was was off his head."

Because of Covid, after such a lengthy period of dark theatres in the valley, director May has delivered to the Tempe stage in this season's final production something that maybe even he had never previously considered would be the end result. By producing such an emotionally challenging production as ASSASSINS while fleshing out performances from his well-cast ensemble (Kathleen Berger, Robert Andrews, and Robyn Foley complete the lineup) all portraying horrendous characters yet succeeding in retaining their humanity no matter how off-the-wall their nutcase values are, May has reaffirmed the value of live theatre.

The emotions you may feel towards these dark episodes in American history are the kind that reaches directly into the soul of American society. It's possible that as you exit the Tempe theatre, audience members may find personal ethics surprisingly compromised to the point where certain unspoken beliefs need to be faced and eventually questioned. With ASSASSINS, Stray Cat has truly achieved one of its intended missions. Through the kind of emotional power that only a live theatrical experience can create, the company helps us see these characters with a fresher, more human perspective, if only for a moment.

Poster credit to Stray Cat Theatre

Stray Cat Theatre ~ Venue: Tempe Center for the Arts Studio Theatre ~ 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, AZ ~ ~ 480-227-1766.

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