Stephen Sondheim transformed the American musical in many ways, some more unexpected than others. First he was hailed for using music and lyrics to deliver the story in groundbreaking ways. Then his subject matter became more unseemly—like a barber who slashes his clients’ throats (1979’s Sweeney Todd), or fairy tale characters who display the cynical side of human nature (1987’s Into the Woods), or, in the case of Assassins (1990), a part-factual/part-fanciful exploration of the lives and psyches of nine infamous citizens who murdered, or attempted to murder, U.S. presidents.
The new production of Assassins at Boiler Room Theatre, directed imaginatively by Jamey Green, will likely surprise audiences unfamiliar with the piece. After all, a musical whose characters include John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley and Lynette (“Squeaky”) Fromme, among others, can hardly play upon our sympathies. Instead, librettist John Weidman turns to empathy: With a rather twisted affection, he effectively offers insight into the evildoers’ motivating forces. Alienation is the common emotion the assassins all share, and through the creativity of Weidman’s words and Sondheim’s pastiche score, the personages are humanized in strange but revealing ways.
Assassins is somewhat of a revue, each character getting his or her moment in the spotlight via confessional or illustrative vignettes. There’s disgruntled factory worker Leon Czolgosz (Sloan Yarborough), who killed President William McKinley in 1901; Charles Guiteau (Shane Bridges), a political fanatic who killed President James A. Garfield in 1881; and Giuseppe Zangara (Scott Rice), a mentally unbalanced Italian immigrant whose 1933 attempted assassination of FDR went awry, resulting instead in the murder of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak.
While much of this material is guaranteed to send history-minded theatergoers scurrying to Wikipedia, the character studies are far more than encyclopedia entries. This is especially true in the case of Samuel Byck, the key player in a less well known 1974 episode in which he attempted to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House to kill President Nixon.
Byck (Jack E. Chambers) gets two fairly extensive scenes in which, among other things, he makes a tape recording to send to composer Leonard Bernstein, demonstrating the extent of his delusions.
Others who failed were Charles Manson acolyte Fromme (Erin Burns) and Sara Jane Moore (Lisa Gillespie), both of whom bungled attempts on the life of President Gerald R. Ford within a three-week period in 1975. (Moore, by the way, made parole on Dec. 31, 2007, at the age of 77, after serving 32 years of a life sentence.)
Corbin Green gives a very strong vocal performance as Booth, who serves as ringleader and a kind of spiritual lightning rod throughout. Aided by designer Anthony Popolo’s useful rear-screen projections, he fires the first of the evening’s many gunshots at Honest Abe, shortly after rejecting the sardonic notion that he’d never have done it if only he’d gotten better reviews in his acting career. Thereafter, Booth comes and goes all night long, encouraging misdeeds. In the culminating sequence, he goads Oswald (Douglas Goodman), the eeriness reaching a crescendo when the legendary Zapruder film of the JFK assassination rolls in the background.
The Sondheim songs are atypical even for his far-reaching palette, with references to opera, music hall, Sousa and other patriotic anthems, and an occasional Kander-and-Ebb jauntiness, along with his usual dissonant freneticism, all of which keeps us on edge. Among the notable numbers are “Gun Song,” with its impressive multi-part harmonies; “Unworthy of Your Love,” a bizarrely moving duet sung with passion by Mike Baum (as would-be Ronald Reagan assassin Hinckley) and Burns, which serves as a sicko tribute to their characters’ muses (Jodie Foster and Manson, respectively); and, in keeping with the warped rationale for the show, a sober-minded yet rhythmic opener (reprised at the end) with the message, “Everybody’s got a right to their dream.”
And just to make sure other important nefarious gunmen aren’t overlooked, there’s a brief segment paying “tribute” to Sirhan Sirhan, Arthur Bremer and James Earl Ray, all assailants of important non-presidential political figures.
Dan McGeachy, Alan Lee, Megan Murphy and Sara Schoch provide wonderful support for the eccentric proceedings, covering ancillary roles, lending choral strength and playing musical instruments. BRT first-timer Ryan Hunt does some marvelous singing in the role of a balladeer who croons a caustic linking commentary.
Director Green elicits standout ensemble performances throughout Assassins, striking a singular blow for the darker side of the American experience.
Rep announces 2008-9 season
Tennessee Repertory Theatre recently released the play lineup for its forthcoming 24th season, which includes two modern classics familiar to Nashvillians, plus three local premieres.
Speaking of Sondheim, Sweeney Todd kicks off the season (Oct. 4-18), followed by the local premiere of Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias (Nov. 8-22), an intriguing look back at a critical moment in Hollywood history. David Mamet’s intense Glengarry Glen Ross will be presented Feb. 7-21, and the main-stage season will wrap with two more Nashville firsts—David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2006 Pulitzer winner Rabbit Hole (March 21-April 4) and Crispin Whittell’s Darwin in Malibu, which offers an unusual comic rumination on the subject of evolution (May 2-16).
The Rep also plans to bring back the popular holiday show Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris (Nov. 28-Dec. 20), with actor and former People’s Branch Theatre artistic director Matt Chiorini in the feature role.
All productions will be presented at TPAC’s Johnson Theater.
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