BWW Review: Killer Talent in 5th Ave/ACT's ASSASSINS
Only the incredible Stephen Sondheim could make a musical about Presidential assassins and make it work. It's a dark subject that you think wouldn't be sung about. But Sondheim shows off his storytelling prowess by creating a sort of club or group therapy aspect to the group of killers as they attempt to tie all their works together with the act of their most famous member. And while the cast of the current joint production from the 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT certainly has the talent to pull off this demanding show, they don't always feel cohesive or in the same club but hopefully as they settle in that will come.
Presenting the actions of the nine US Presidential Assassins, The Proprietor (Nick DeSantis) acts as a kind of Master of Ceremonies as we visit each of their actions and motives. There's John Wilkes Booth (Louis Hobson) who famously shot President Abraham Lincoln, Charles Guiteau (Richard Gray) who shot President James Garfield, Guiseppe Zangara (John Coons) who attempted to kill President Roosevelt but failed, Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Laura Griffith and Kendra Kassebaum) both of whom failed to kill President Gerald Ford, Samuel Byck (Matt Wolfe) who plotted to crash a plane into the White House to kill President Nixon, Leon Czolgosz (Brandon O'Neill) who killed President McKinley, John Hinkley Jr. (Frederick Hagreen) who went after President Reagan, and of course Lee Harvey Oswald (Nathan Brockett) who assassinated President Kennedy.
What makes the show work are that the songs are not about the acts but about the emotion leading to the acts and while brutal actually come across as empathetic. For example, one song "Unworthy of your love" is a beautiful love song and quite pretty until you realize that Hinkley and Fromme are singing about their obsessions with Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. Direction John Langs has tapped into this creepy duality well. As I said, occasionally the cohesiveness of the ensemble falls apart but only a few times and for the most part the cast is quite tight.
Each and every one of them has their moment to shine and they do however I must call out some standouts. Wolfe as the crazed Santa suited Byck is as riveting as he is deranged and his monologues are incredible. O'Neill is super powerful as the disillusioned immigrant Czolgosz and his meeting with the revolutionary Emma Goldman, wonderfully played by Kjerstine Rose Anderson, was a thing of beauty. The face off between Griffith and Kassebaum as the only two female assassins was worth the price of admission especially for Kassebaum who managed to bring a ton of humor to her killer without taking her to the level of caricature. But it was Hagreen who truly blew me away as you could see his laser focus into the character from the moment he set foot on stage and he and Griffith's aforementioned duet was the most hauntingly beautiful love song ever (emphasis on "hauntingly").
So some minor qualms aside this is the production of my personal favorite Sondheim that I've been waiting for. And so with my three letter rating system I give "Assassins" a killer YAY. And as this gem is rarely produced you'll want to make sure you catch it before it's gone.
5th Avenue Theatre and ACT's joint production of "Assassins" performs at ACT through May 8th. For tickets or information visit the 5th Avenue Theatre online at www.5thavenue.org or ACT online at www.acttheatre.org.