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Theater Review: Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman

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The vaporous America dream is often distilled into motivational bromides. They inspire the best in some and the worst in others. The one that defines this as a country where anyone can grow up to become President just underscores how far removed from power some feel.

In Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, in a Sight Unseen Theatre Company production at L.A.’s Meta Theatre through May 20, the composer-lyricist and his Pacific Overtures book-writer explore nine lowly Americans who sought to — and in four cases did — overpower the man who embodied this aspect of the American dream.

The 60-seat Meta provides an appropriately claustrophobic environment in which to meet Sondheim’s assassins. The wonderful cast, under brisk direction by Cindy Jenkins and the musical stewardship of Andy Mitton and Nancy Dobbs Owen, creates two required dimensions: that these be loners and that they form a strange historical collective.

Both chronologically and artistically, the obvious starting point is John Wilkes Booth (Michael Laurino), the actor who killed Abraham Lincoln in a theater.  From Booth to John Hinckley (Lance Kramer), the actors connect these misfits to their era, to their bizarre motivations, and to each other.

Assassins is a black comedy clubhouse the way the Righteous Brothers' "Rock and Roll Heaven" is a Top 40 gathering spot for deceased pop stars. A Balladeer (the outstanding Kyle Nudo) and a "Proprietor" (Patrick Seitz, prone to mugging) alternate major domo functions to introduce and interact with the would-be executioners.

In addition to Booth and Hinckley, there are Charles Giteau (Philip D'Amore), who killed James A. Garfield; Leon Czolgosz (Jason Decker), who killed William McKinley; Guiseppe Zangara (Salvatore Vassallo), who attempted to kill FDR, but killed the Mayor of Chicago beside him; Samuel Byck (Corey Pepper), who plotted to kill Richard Nixon; Sara Jane Moore (Gina Torrecilla) and Lynette Fromme (Juliana Johnson), who attempted to shoot Gerald Ford; and Lee Harvey Oswald (James Sheldon), who killed JFK.

Ms. Jenkins guides the big musical into the small space so that ensemble numbers fit as comfortably as the important two-actor scenes. Three of these two-handers are particularly noteworthy. Rachel Payne as Emma Goldman and Mr. Decker as Czolgosz carve out lovely emotional space for the anarchist author to innocently encourage her acolyte’s actions, creating that imagined meeting and setting up Hinckley’s similarly inspired but utterly apolitical shot a century later.

Mr. Laurino and Mr. Sheldon also connected beautifully for the imagined brainwashing of America's last successful assassin by its first. The delightful Ms. Johnson and Ms. Torrecilla provide comic relief without sacrificing their characters’ convictions. (Agent alert: The program bio says that the Witherspoonesque Ms. Johnson needs representation.) Mr. Kramer's Hinckley is always engaging, as are the two ensemble players, Rachel Jendrezejewski and Joaquin Nunez.

Only demerits at this performance were in the Gordian knot that tied the canvas strap to Oswald’s rifle (kudos to Mr. Sheldon for not missing a bead) and the lighting cue for Byck’s second solo scene. Perhaps the actor missed his spike. If not, there’s just too much shadow from the car door. On the subject of Byck, Mr. Pepper benefits from comedic gifts, but they occasionally push his character past definition.

Sondheim does not intend to explain the assassination phenomenon as much as lay it out with a unifying principle of theatricality. As is his wont, his music here has a thematic tie-in, sounding the music of each historical era. Though such nuance would be better served by a full orchestra, the five musicians on stage evoke the styles and promote the essential sense of smallness and withdrawal that fits these characters.

Still, as is happily the case with Sondheim, one hears him in his music as well: a hint of Pirelli in "How I Saved Roosevelt" and ensemble cadences from Company or Sweeney in the final "Everybody’s Got the Right." As is also often the case with Sondheim productions (even the merely average), they will sell out. With one this good, "just look around," to paraphrase the pop song about fallen leaders, "and it'll be gone."

For the record, this production returns to the original Broadway song list, omitting the subsequently added "Something Just Broke," the roundelay of people recalling where they were when they heard JFK had died. This show also adds a curtain-ringing button with an image from that horrific weekend in 1963.

ON THE REAL SIDE: Having seen Assassins four days after the worst mass murder on a U.S. campus, connections were inevitable. During the week, commentators tried to sort out the killer’s personal alienation and possible motives from the messages — both intentional and inadvertent — that he left behind. Other commentators — a man on PBS’ NewsHour and a woman at a political rally aired on C-SPAN — leaned this tragic loss of 32 citizens as a yardstick against the casualty figures from Iraq, where such loss is a daily occurrence. Was that meant to dilute the grief of Americans across the country? Quite the contrary. It is to remind Americans of the impact those deaths should be having there and here. 

Assassins, the Iraq war, and the campus murders do fit together. Was the student in Virginia not an assassin? Was he not a suicide bomber? While grieving our loss is essential, devaluing foreign lives and adopting a lower threshold for senselessness sets the stage for a kind of international alienation. Just as we need to watch for warning signs that fellow Americans are becoming isolated and misunderstood by their peers, we must be vigilant, as a nation, for signs that we may be internalizing alienation from the international theater.

Postscript. After writing about these connections between assassinations and school shootings, I sat down to a 60 Minutes lead-off piece about the connection between assassinations and school shootings. Apparently studies are ongoing that the same forms of alienation that drives Presidential assassins drives the loners who kill their fellow students.

CREDITS music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed by Cindy Jenkins, musical direction by Andy Mitton  WITH Kyle Nudo, Michael Laurino, Philip D’Amore, Jason Decker, Salvatore Vassallo, Corey Pepper, Juliana Johnson, Gina Torrecilla, Lance Kramer, James Sheldon, Patrick Seitz, Rachel Payne, Rachel Jendrzejewski, Joaquin Nunez.  ORCHESTRA Andy Mitton, keyboards/conductor; Clark Freeman, percussion; Sheila Gonzalez, winds; Brian Bunker, strings; Daren Burns/Ruben Ramos, bass PRODUCTION Dan Jenkins/Sam Roberts, set/lights; Valerie Rothenberg, costumes; Ellen Juhlin, sound; Nancy Dobbs Owen, musical staging; Casey Clark, stage management/fights 

Sight Unseen Productions, at Meta Theatre  April 20-May 20 (Reviewed 4/20)

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