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Theatre Review (LA): Assassins by Sondheim and Weidman at the Actors Circle Theatre

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One of the most adventuresome, creative, and bold companies around is the Coeurage Theatre Company. I was blown away by their presentation a few years ago of The Trouble with Words, an original musical written by company member Gregory Nabours. This is a company to be reckoned with. When I saw that they were going to do the notoriously difficult musical Assassins with music by Sondheim and a rather shaky book by John Weidman, I made sure to include this production in my already crowded schedule.

I have seen Assassins three times now and each time I learn something about this troubled work. The musical has a cast of characters made up famous or I should say infamous assassins or would-be assassins who targeted presidents of the United States, starting with John Wilkes Booth and ending with Lee Harvey Oswald. In between we meet Giuseppe Zangara (who killed the mayor of Chicago and nearly shot FDR), Samuel Bick (tried to shoot Nixon), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Manson devotee and attempted assassin of Gerald Ford), Charles Guiteau (who shot Garfield), John Hinckley (who tried to kill Reagan), Leon Czolgosz (who shot McKinley) and finally Sarah Jane Moore (who just weeks after Ms. Fromme attempted to kill President Ford, also tried to kill him).

This show has never been a huge success, partly because of its subject matter, partly because of a rather clunky book that is episodic rather than flowing, and partly because of the individual productions. The New York production was difficult to accept because name actors were playing these characters.

The current Coeurage production succeeds on the musical level (except for the odd choice of having Booth speak-sing his song when the performer has a wonderful voice and the song is Sondheim’s best). The performers are all good actors and the singing is sublime; however, the direction leaves much to be desired. Instead of each assassin having his or her own motives and humanity, the whole cast seems to be motivated, as characters, by hate, which makes for a difficult evening. The scenes are presented separately, each followed by a blackout, rather than with any attempt being made to find a way to make the show flow in spite of the problematic book. (It doesn’t help that the theatre lacks air conditioning. Assassins will be playing until Sept 9.

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