By Karen Isaacs
The Yale Rep is producing the musical that Steven Sondheim considers one of his best – Assassins through April 8.
Sondheim and book writer John Weidman have interwoven the stories and motivations of eight individuals who either attempted to or succeeded in assassinating the President of the U.S.
Through this, they explore both our national inclination to violence, our celebrity culture and the alienation of these individual to our society.
Some of these people you will know but others have become mere footnotes in history books or totally forgotten.
The show is set in an arcade with a shooting gallery like those that give out stuffed animals and other cheap prizes at carnivals. But here the gallery says “Shoot a President” and the prize is fame or infamy. The assassins all have a grudge of some sort and lashing out at the office of President is one way they think that they can assuage it. For some, the grudge is more a result of mental illness or delusions than any reality. The reasons often have nothing to do with politics or policies.
The musical – which is one act, approximately 100 minutes long – opens and closes with the two most famous assassins – John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. In “The Ballad of Booth” we envision his last moments before he is shot and killed. His rationale is very clear: to him, Lincoln destroyed the South and became both a dictator and traitor. Booth famously said, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants,”) after shooting Lincoln. But the Balladeer (a folk singer character who comments on much of the action) wonders if Booth didn’t do it because he was losing his acting talent and was envious of his brother, Edgar who was the first great American actor.
It seems as though Booth is often on the scene either commenting on the action of the others or egging them on.
As the musical progresses, the lives and actions of the other assassins intertwine. We meet Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami and did kill the mayor. We meet Charles Guiteau who killed President Garfield; he wanted to be ambassador to France and to sell his book. Then there is Leon Czolgosz who killed McKinley. His motives seem to concern the plight of the working man of the period.
Of course, there are the more recent assassination attempts: these are represented by four deluded individuals. Samuel Byck planned to kill Nixon by high jacking a plane and crashing it into the White House. Both Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore tried to kill Ford, in almost laughable attempts and John Hinckley did shoot, but not kill Reagan out of love for the actress Jodi Foster.
The final episode is Booth and the others urging Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy. Booth tells him it is the only way he will be famous and the others believe his act will revive their fame.
Sondheim’s music often reflects the popular music of the period, with Booth getting a ballad and Guiteau a cakewalk. The songs reflect the attitudes – Booth and the others sing at the end “everybody’s got the right to be happy.” Hickley and Fromme sing of their love for Jodi Foster and Charles Manson, respectively.
Despite the dark subject matter there is humor. Sara Jane Moore seems to constantly be either losing her gun in her voluminous purse or shooting it off accidently, frightening all around her. Guiteau swings between religiosity (“I am going to the Lordy”) to desire to promote his book. Samuel Byck carries on long imaginary conversations with Lenny Bernstein and other celebrities of the late ‘60s.
A group of bystanders comment on the action and at times play the various victims.
James Bundy, the director has used a variety of visual effects to create the scenes. On the sides of the University Theater, are projections often of the targets of the assassins. The shooting gallery is dark – no flashing neon lights drawing people in.
Casting is crucial for this piece, and Yale has assembled a fine cast of actor/singers. Robert
Lenzi has the good looks of an actor for Booth as well as a fine voice; Stephen DeRosa overplays the humor as Guiteau but P. J. Griffith gives a touching portrait of the immigrant working man, Leon Czolgosz. As the two women, Lauren Molina creates a fanatical “Squeaky” Fromme and Julia Murney is convincing as the more maternal but equally scattered Sara Jane Moore. Lucas Dixon shows us a bland John Hickley, while Stanley Bahorek presents Zanagara as a man who attempted to kill FDR because he had a constant stomach ache. Richard R. Henry is talkative Samuel Byck.
All of them sing well. Credit should go to the lighting by Yi Zhao and sound by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts and the projections by Michael Commendatore. David Dorman did the choreography; I would have liked more references to the dances of the period in which the assassinations occurred.
Assassins is both entertaining and chilling. It should encourage all of us to consider what the American dream is and how those who cannot achieve it react.
For tickets, visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.
By Karen Isaacs
Cole Porter’s classic Anything Goes, now at Goodspeed in East Haddam through June 16, even in its original version featured so many classic songs and so much fun that it has been revived numerous times. That it had never made it to Goodspeed is somewhat surprising.
A 1962 off-Broadway revival of the show brought attention once again to it; that production started the trend of interpolating classic Porter songs from other musicals. It was the 1987 revival at Lincoln Center that put the show on the theatrical map. It featured a revised book, re-ordered songs and starred Patti LuPone and Howard McGillan. From then on, it has had multiple worldwide productions. In 2011, Sutton Foster won a Tony for starring in the most recent revival that also featured Joel Grey.
All of these outstanding productions, and the memories from either seeing them live (as I saw the 2011 revival) or hearing them on CD, sets a very high standard for any production. Goodspeed also has reputation for producing excellent work, so it too causes an audience to expect an almost perfect production.
I wish I could say that this production meets these expectations. It is professional, overall well sung, danced, acted, and yet, it falls short.
It is the type of production that audiences will enjoy, but those more knowledgeable will find numerous flaws with it; not enough to spoil the experience, but to leave them wishing it were better.
The story is a typical silly plot of the 1930s. Aboard a ship sailing to England are a variety of passengers: Reno Sweeney, a nightclub evangelist; Billy Crocker a young Wall Street assistant; Elisha J. Whitney – an aging Yale alumni and millionaire who employs Billy; a debutante – Hope Harcourt; her mother; her fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh; and for the comedy an on-the-lam criminal (Public Enemy #13) Moonface Martin and man-loving Erma, the girlfriend of Snake Eyes Johnson, Public Enemy #1 who has gotten left ashore.
The complications include Billy stowing away and masquerading as Snake Eyes and is arrested:; ruses to keep Elisha from knowing Billy is on board (he was supposed to go to Wall Street and sell some shares); Billy pursuing Hope who is only marrying Evelyn because her mother insists they need the money; Reno attracted to first Billy and then Evelyn. In fact, the complications are on-going.
But in reality the plot is there for humor, exposition and to keep the songs coming. From the original show these include the title song, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “All Through the Night.” The current production has added (as did the most recent revivals) such Porter classics as “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.”
Rashidra Scott is a terrific Reno Sweeney. She sings, dances and carries the comedy well. This is a show that demands a dynamite leading lady and Scott delivers. David Harris plays Billy with the right amount of brash youth, mooning young love and cunning. Hannah Florence is the debutante who loves Billy but is following her mother’s insistence of the marriage to the English lord due to diminishing family wealth. Again, she sings nicely but the chemistry between the two is lacking. Are these characters truly attracted to each other? I didn’t believe it.
While individual performances are good, the balance of the show seems off and chemistry among the cast members is also missing.
The balance issue is most obvious with Stephen DeRosa as Moonface Martin. DeRosa is a
gifted comic actor but here he hijacks the show. Too often, when your attention should be on another major character, he has a bit of business that diverts your eyes. Often the bits aren’t that funny, as in a couple references to Connecticut towns in the duet “Friendship” with Reno. Director Daniel Goldstein needed to rein him in. Yet he scores with his one solo number “Be Like the Bluebird”.
No other supporting cast member overdoes it to the extent DeRosa does. The other major comic role is that of the English Lord, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh. Benjamin Howes is fine and handles his one song, “The Gypsy in Me” effectively.
With the more minor characters I have some quibbles in the casting or interpretation. Why is it necessary for the purser to be played as such a gay stereotype? Why is Elisha J. Whitney, the alcoholic, Yale grad played with a southern drawl? I have to admit that the outstanding performance by John McMartin as Whitney in the last revival has set a high standard.
Even the scenic design – the deck of a ship – by Wilson Chin – seemed to cause problems. First, though it may be an optical illusion, that the small Goodspeed playing area was even less deep than usual. The placement of the orchestra on the top deck limited the area up there that could be used.
The costumes by Ilona Somogyi were terrific. The lighting by Brian Tovar and the sound by Jay Hilton were also excellent.
Kelli Barclay choreographed the show which always features terrific tap numbers in the title tune and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” I do wish there had been one or two more women in the chorus.
Director Daniel Goldstein does a good job yet some of his decisions kept this from being the “top” show you would like it to be.
Anything Goes is at Goodspeed in East Haddam through June 16. For tickets contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.