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BWW Review: ASSASSINS at Signature Theatre

BWW Review: ASSASSINS at Signature Theatre
L-R Evan Casey (John Hinckley), Rachel Zampelli (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), BobbySmith (Charles Guiteau), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Sara Jane Moore), Vincent Kempski (John Wilkes Booth), Lawrence Redmond (Leon Czolgosz), Ian McEuen (Giuseppe Zangara), Sam Ludwig (Lee Harvey Oswald) and Christopher Bloch (Sam Byck) in the Signature Theatre production of Assassins. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Signature Theatre and Stephen Sondheim have been a winning combination in the DC theatre scene since 1991when the company presented Sweeney Todd at Gunston. In 1992 it presented the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman collaboration known as Assassins. The show was produced again by Signature in 2006 in their garage space.

Given Signature's history with Assassins it is no surprise that for its 30th season opener the company is presenting a brand new production of that show. It also marks the 30th time Signature Theatre has presented a Sondheim musical.

I have a confession to make up front. When I first saw Assassins at Playwrights Horizons in the early 90's I had a big problem with the show because at the time I felt it glorified the characters and thought the humor was in extremely bad taste given the subject matter. Let's face it, a musical about the men and women who attempted to and sometimes succeeded in killing an American President is pretty morbid material.

As I have gotten older I've come to appreciate the show a lot more and Signature Theatre's current production not only brings out the true meaning of the material it has some strokes of theatrical genius along the way.

John Weidman's book isn't a text book treatment by any means. What it does is bring all of the presidential assassins together in one place to commiserate on how they all want the same things. They all want to be remembered and accepted.

Take for instance John Hinckley (Evan Casey) whom you might remember tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley is very much of a loner who is living a fantasy love affair with Jodie Foster. All Hinckley wanted was to be loved by someone even though he knew he was unworthy of the actress' affections.

Then you have Giuseppe Zangara (Ian McEuen) who made an unsuccessful attempt at killing President Franklin Roosevelt. Zangara was put to death by electrocution. He didn't care about what he did as long as he was going to be remembered for what he did.

Of course we can't forget the granddaddy of the assassins one John Wilkes Booth (Vincent Kempski) who jumped from the box of Ford's Theatre after shooting President Abraham Lincoln. Booth thought he was doing the country a favor when ultimately he ended up shooting himself in a barn.

These are only a few examples but what brings all the show's assassins together is that common theme of a want for something.

Signature Theatre's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer has assembled a stellar group of performers in what might be one of his best directorial jobs to date.

There is so much talent onstage and I can't mention everyone for obvious reasons but I want to call out a few performers in particular.

Christopher Bloch performance as Samuel Byck is a master class in acting. Byck tried to hijack a plane and then thought he would fly it into the White House to kill President Richard Nixon. He had sent tape recordings to Leonard Bernstein and other notables and suffered from depression. Bloch's two monologues capture this tortured soul perfectly. His performance is a prime example of the right actor and the right character. It's the perfect marriage.

Lynette "Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Rachel Zampelli and Tracy Lynn Olivera) made a bungled attempt at killing President Gerald Ford. Fromme was one of Charles Manson's followers and Moore was a divorcee five times over.

Here you have two top DC actresses doing what they do best. Their characters provide some of the comedic moments in the proceedings. For example Moore can't shoot a gun straight and brings her kid Billy (Jack St. Pierre) to the assassination because she misread the school calendar. I always love watching Olivera and Zampelli onstage and their performances here just reaffirm what we already knew about the crazy amount of talent they possess.

Zampelli and Evan Casey's duet "Unworthy of Your Love" is a definite vocal highlight.

Vincent Kempski's performance of John Wilkes Booth is truly memorable and one of many definite reasons to grab some tickets.

I mentioned there are strokes of theatrical genius in this show and the biggest one is Schaeffer's decision to have the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald played by the same actor. In this case Sam Ludwig gets to show off his superb vocal skills on "The Ballads of Booth, Czolgosz and Guiteau" respectively. His strong acting skills come shining through as Lee Harvey Oswald. His portrayal is eerily spot on and all together brilliant

Another stroke of genius is to take Clarles Guiteau's "The Ballad of Guiteau" and make it a bit of a soft-shoe number to showcase the talents of Bobby Smith. It is again another example of Schaeffer knowing how to show off his performers to the max.

Towards the end of the show a single image of Jackie Onassis Kennedy draped over JFK's body after being shot by Oswald is projected. It is still chilling to see almost 56 years later. Sometimes you don't need much to create a lasting moment in the theatre.

The ensemble as a whole sounds incredibly full on such numbers as "Another National Anthem" and "Everybody's Got the Right".

Musical Director Jon Kalbfleisch (the only member of the production team to have participated in all three productions of Assassins at Signature Theatre) leads a terrific sounding eight piece ensemble. The orchestra reduction was done by Kalbfleisch and Scott Ninmer and represents Michael Starobin's original charts very nicely. The orchestra sounds very full throughout.

James Kronzer's set includes the box where Booth shot Lincoln and has a ghost like aura about it. It's the perfect frame for Schaeffer's vision.

Kathleen Geldard's costumes are period perfect and accurate.

Chris Lee's lighting adds to the eeriness.

Signature Theatre's production of Assassins shows us what happens when everything aligns and hits the mark. The 30th anniversary season promises to be a good one and this sure shot production gets things off to a very strong start. Get "your prize with the big blue eyes" and check out Assassins.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

Assassins runs through September 29, 2019 in The MAX space at Signature Theatre which is located at 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA.

For tickets, click here.

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