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BWW Review: Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS at freeFall Theatre is Darkly Funny & Terrifyingly Timely

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"If I were asked to name the show that comes closest to my expectations for it, the answer would be ASSASSINS...[As] far as I'm concerned, the show is perfect. Immodest that my sound, but I'm ready to argue it with anybody." --Stephen Sondheim

ASSASSINS is terrifyingly timely. Stephen Sondheim's musical on the lost, angry, real-life souls who take their frustrations out by shooting Presidents of the United States first premiered 26 years ago, but some of the monologues (especially Samuel Byck's) could be shouted at the current rallies of a certain Presidential candidate. Did freeFall Artistic Director Eric Davis, who chose the season, know that a work like this, which deals with the darkest sides of American history, would be so chillingly current during this particular election season? Did he pick it because he knew it would be like holding a mirror up to those what-about-me angry voters out there? Whatever the reason for its selection (a literal gun blast to open the season), ASSASSINS is a brilliant choice.

Musicals need not make us comfortable. Of course those comfort-food, feel-good musicals have their obvious place and prove as popular as hot fudge sundaes, but it's the darker musicals that bleed from the stage into our society. Cabaret is the perfect example of one of those disquieting musicals that, if done right, keeps us on The Edge of our seat and later lying in bed with one eye open, so disturbed and provoked over what transpired onstage. We can't stop thinking about it--the ultimate test as to whether a show works or not. In Cabaret's Act 1 closing moment, when the cast sings the Nazi anthem, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," and gives the Nazi salute, the audience is usually left going into intermission unsure exactly what to do. Do they applaud? Do they cheer at strong performances? Or do they sit on their hands, not wanting someone to think that they are actually clapping for the Nazis?

ASSASSINS is one of the darkest of all musicals; it makes Cabaret look like Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. And freeFall Theatre is the perfect local company to bring this darkness to life.

With Sondheim's music and lyrics and John Weidman's book, ASSASSINS is a collage of sorts, a vaudevillian horror revue, and a rollicking look at the losers at life who decide to leave their mark with the help of a gun. It's like the flip side of Disney's Hall of Presidents, where all the Commanders in Chief from different time periods stand in one room together. Here, all the assassins from 1864 to 1981 interact, hang out together, and point their guns directly at the audience. It's exhilarating and chilling, a show with ice in its veins, and I'm still not over it.

The cast could not be better. I have seen Britt Michael Gordon in three shows in the past few months: His TTB-award winning turn in The Pitmen Painters; his under-the-radar realness in Good People; and here--as the most famous American assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Gordon's Booth is brilliantly realized. He looks like the infamous killer of Abraham Lincoln, mustachioed, handsome and cold. He seems to float as he stoically walks. The key is that Gordon doesn't overplay a role that can be easily overplayed. We sense who he is down deep, to his core, and when he tries to get Lee Harvey Oswald to kill Kennedy, his desperation to keep their history alive resonates. Gordon has shown such versatility in his three recent (local) roles that you would not know that these were all performed by the same actor unless you read the programs. He's the real deal.

Equally as strong is Lucas Wells as the Balladeer, who later becomes Lee Harvey Oswald. Wells always shines in freeFall shows--Spring Awakening, Bright Lights, Big City and Peter and the Starcatcher--and he is extremely likable here. His vocals soar, and we go to his character for guidance, until we realize that he's the most notorious murderer of the lot. It's not as showy as some of Wells' other freeFall roles, but his indecisiveness as Oswald comes across as real, and he once again turns in an incredible performance (he's four for four).

Susan Haldeman makes for a hilarious Sara Jane Moore, one of Gerald Ford's failed assassins. She's a bit of a klutz, always hugging a barrel of KFC, and she could easily be one of our neighbors. We laugh at her exploits, like pulling a shoe out of her purse instead of a gun and aiming it. But we stop laughing the moment she pulls a gun on her own bratty child (the young Will Garrabrant); in her, one of the more relatable characters to us, we see that smiling powder keg ready to explode. And it makes us wonder: Maybe our own neighbors, the same people that smile at us everyday, are capable of doing a shocking act like Sara Jane Moore tried.

One of the ironies of ASSASSINS is that it contains perhaps Sondheim's loveliest duet, "Unworthy of Your Love." This beautiful number is surprisingly sung by John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan's shooter, to his love Jodie Foster, and by Squeaky Fromme to her love, Charles Manson. As Hinckley, John Mark Hernigan is properly awkward, emotionally bruised and introverted. It's a remarkable performance. Marissa Toogood's Squeaky captures that childlike voice of the father-fixated Manson family member to a tee. If you've seen the 1972 documentary, Manson, where you hear Squeaky speak of her devotion to the elfin cult leader (it's as creepy as anything you'll likely find), you see how harrowingly accurate Toogood's interpretation is.

Robert Teasdale is quite accomplished as Leon Czolgosz, William McKinley's assassin. Pasqualino Beltemo, is chilling as FDR's failed killer, the Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara. And Alan Mohney Jr., as president James Garfield's shooter, Charles Guiteau, is a revelation. Mohney's vocals and his speaking voice rattle the rafters. It's a standout performance.

Perhaps best of all is Thomas Mothershed's Samuel Byck, a Santa-clad loser who wants to hijack a plane and ram it into the White House to kill President Nixon. Byck's show-stopping monologues are incredibly rendered here. You hold your breath, not knowing what he will say next, knowing he can be calm and eating Burger King one moment, exploding out of nowhere the next. His monologue where he's recording a message to Leonard Bernstein is the best of the two and one of the moments of the show that I still cannot shake. It's spellbinding.

The rest of the cast is also quite good in a variety of roles: Sara DelBeato, Rand Smith, Nick Orfanella (as the Proprietor, another standout role), and the supremely talented Daniel Schwab. Special mention must be made of ensemble member Eileen Lymus-Sanders, whose glorious vocals in "Something Just Broke" made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. She sadly folds a white sheet (previously used as a screen where the famed Zapruder film had been projected on), singing one of Sondheim's most haunting numbers, and it's an incredible moment where the vocal and the meaning of the show come together. "Something Just Broke" was not featured in the original run of the show, but watching it here, you cannot imagine ASSASSINS without it. It's a much-needed release for the audience.

This is one exquisitely guided production. Director Chris Crawford's lively staging is immaculate; the acting top-notched; and the whole thing handsomely mounted. Eric Davis' set works quite well. There is a large fun house Uncle Sam who looks like a clown--a red, white and blue Pennywise with creepy glowing eyes like Randall Flagg. There is also a levitating staircase where the steps light up like a warped version of 42nd Street. Blue and white balloons (like the stars on a flag) line the wall, and to create the sound of gun fire, they are popped throughout the show. On the walls behind the audience are portraits of the various Presidents who have either been assassinated or have had an attempt on their life. (The portraits light up whenever being shot at.) Ryan Finzelber's lighting, with its use of heavy greens and reds, is quite effective, though the constant smoke does get quite heavy at times.

David Kovach's costumes are quite suitable, but Michelle Hart's wig design does not hit the bull's-eye. Haldeman's black wig makes Sara Jane Moore look like a psychotic Kaye Ballard, while Toogood's bright red Squeaky Fromme wig just doesn't work for me. Toogood resembles a frenzied Ariel, a refugee who just escaped from a really odd production of The Little Mermaid.

Music director Michael Raabe's orchestra is extraordinarily tight, with Irving Goldberg on bass, Burt Rushing on drums, David Tagliarini on reeds, and Raabe himself on the keyboards. The only issue is that the actors are not using microphones, so sometimes we can't hear a delicious Sondheim lyric, especially if the actor is facing the other way. We get used to this, but it also can be difficult for the actors who have to keep over-projecting their voices (doing this for six shows a week can damage vocal cords).

ASSASSINS at freeFall is a Don't Miss musical if ever there was one. Still, I know by its very nature (and title), it is not for everyone. The audience can get uncomfortable at the unnerving material, and this is fine. Good theatre is not the same as happy theatre. And this is good--nay, great--theatre. ASSASSINS is darkly funny and on-target, and Sondheim unapologetically tells a very important story. It's unflinching and uncompromising. I don't know if I agree with Mr. Sondheim's claim that it's a "perfect" musical (Sweeney Todd is closer to my idea of perfection), but it's mighty tight and packs a most definite punch. And if anyone is to write The Perfect Musical, it's Stephen Sondheim.

There is a moment in ASSASSINS that still haunts me, and it points once again to the fine job Crawford has done in directing. The evocative "Something Just Broke" about the assassination of John F. Kennedy has ended, and the African-American Lymus-Sanders is exiting the stage. On her way out she passes by John Wilkes Booth. The two of them make eye contact--the past merging with the present, her world destroyed by JFK's death and his life and infamy forever made by his killing of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. It is an incredible snapshot of two worlds, two time periods, two races, colliding. He grins; she lowers her head. And when Booth sings the lines of the closing song--"Everybody Has the Right to Be Happy"--the woman walks away, saddened. She represents all of us, those who are witnessing this horrifying, misguided, weirdly contagious anger. The show has always been entertaining as hell, but in this one instant, as the mourning woman walks away, it becomes crushingly sad. Heartbreaking. Mainly because we know the story is not over. The cycle never ends. History just keeps repeating.

ASSASSINS runs through November 6th, ending just two days before this year's election. For more information, please call (727)-498-5205.


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