Review: ASSASSINS at Pallas Theatre Collective

By: Oct. 10, 2017
L-R Karen Lange as 'Sara Jane Moore,' Taylor Rieland as 'John Hinckley,' Tyler Cramer as 'Samuel Byck,' Andrew Keller as 'John Wilkes Booth,' Topher Williams as 'Guiseppe Zangara,' Zach Brewster-Geisz as 'Charles Guiteau,' and Alex Palting as 'Squeaky Fromme' in the Pallas Theatre Collective production of Assassins. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography, LLC

Any musical theatre geek knows that Stephen Sondheim's central subjects for musicals are rarely light and fluffy individuals. Sweeney Todd has a barber who slits people's throats and Sunday in the Park with George has a painter who is a perfectionist and egomaniac.

Perhaps the most bizarre example is found in Sondheim's 1990 musical Assassins. Making the guys and gals who either assassinated or attempted to assassinate our U.S. presidents' sing might turn many members of a mainstream audience off. However, Sondheim was never very interested in commercial theatre so it never mattered.

Pallas Theatre Collective's production, superbly directed by Clare Shaffer, follows the carnival-like atmosphere dictated by John Weidman's book. The first strains of music you hear are that of a calliope. The Proprietor (Alex Thompson) then steps forward and basically says to the carnival customers, if you want to make something of yourself, kill a president because "Everybody's got the right to be happy." The carnival customers happen to be such famed sure shots as John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. I think you can see where this show is going.

The book and score delve into the human condition. Who else but Sondheim could write a song set in the style of a John Philip Sousa march called "How I Saved Roosevelt" and get away with it?

Assassins is an ensemble show to be sure. Numbers like "Another National Anthem" require strong vocal prowess if they are going to land. This isn't an issue as Musical Director Alex Thompson gets the best sounds out of his cast, which performs Sondheim's intricate score with power and much cynicism.

There are a few standout performances for me in this production. As the Balladeer, Will Hawkins' voice is one of the strongest in the show. His rendition of "The Ballad of Booth" is as good as any I've heard.

I really enjoyed Andrew Keller's take on John Wilkes Booth. Booth, you could say, is the elder statesman of the group in that all the other assassins look up to him. Keller's stature certainly fits the character.

One of my personal favorite performances comes from Karen Lange as Sara Jane Moore. She was the housewife who, along with Lynette 'Squeaky' Frome, had a bumbled attempt to kill president Gerald Ford. If you only know Karen Lange from her slightly off-kilter work with her company Pinky Swear Productions, then you really need to also see her in this show. She has a good singing voice and captures her character beautifully.

I also very much enjoyed Alex Palting as Lynette 'Squeaky' Frome in her duet with Taylor Rieland (as John Hinckley) on "Unworthy of Your Love." I also really liked Tyler Cramer's totally deranged take on the Santa Claus assassin known as Samuel Byck.

I will never be a fan of actors playing their own instruments. I find the choice more budget-related than artistic. However, in this case, the decision does actually pay off well given the carnival-like atmosphere. The company plays Michael Starobin's complicated orchestrations with musical grace and perfection.

Director Clare Shaffer proves that she is one of the area's best up and coming directors. She really gets into the heads of the assassins and makes them seem human rather than just lunatics.

Choreographer/Props Designer (there's a combo) Pauline Lamb's choreography adds just enough to group numbers as "Another National Anthem" and "How I Saved Roosevelt."

Lighting designer E-hui Woo creates an eerie carnival atmosphere and makes the most of the minimal lighting inventory in the Trinidad Theatre at the Logan Fringe Arts Space.

As presented by Pallas Theatre Collective, Assassins is one of those shows that is expertly executed by everyone involve. It's taken me many years to appreciate this musical and this production certainly made me appreciate it even more. It's a sure shot of a theatrical experience.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

Assassins runs through October 15, 2017 at Logan Fringe Arts Space: Trinidad Theatre, which is located at 1358 Florida Ave NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, click here.