“Hey pal. C’mere and kill a president,” calls the Proprietor (David Stensrud), who invites folks strolling around a shooting gallery to step up, take aim, and fire at the target. Miss and you get nothing. Well, maybe not nothing, but certainly, nothing you want. Hit your mark however, and claim the biggest prize of all: eternal infamy. This provocative and entertaining rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical comedy gives a salute to both the successful and not-so-successful presidential killers. Dark Horse Company Theatre’s Assassins is not only timely with the current political climate and raging gun control debate, but it is also for the most part, right on target.
Tapping into all things Americana, Anne Stewart Mark’s direction, although not terribly inventive, is solid and sincere. Her casting choices nicely showcase the talents of some of Utah’s finest performing artists. Surprising and refreshing even, is the strong acting ability of many cast members, which I find to often be lacking in local musical theatre productions. I found an aesthetic appeal to her incorporation of mixed media, which Mark uses to help illustrate and drive home the societal disenfranchisement and human desperation of nine pathetic souls, who have for various reasons gotten it into their heads to kill the U.S. president.
As mentioned above, the show is staged as an old-west shooting gallery. The unit set (Daniel Simons) with movable facades, platforms below, and a single raised, stationary platform above, helps to guide us through an imagined afterlife, in which the distorted American dreams of those infamous nine, come to a sort of ethereal crossroads. One could even view them as a sort of club, whereby the members help each other across time and space whenever things get a bit rough going. The set design made scene changes quick and efficient, and helped support the not-quite-vaudevillian style lineup of murderous sad-sacks and misguided misfits through history who share the distinction of having fired upon United States Presidents, spanning from Lincoln through Reagan.
Sondheim’s Assassins poses the inevitable question: “Why’d ya do it?” The answers range from not getting an expected appointment as ambassador to a foreign country, to an obsession with actress Jodie Foster and a desire to impress her, to simply wanting to leave a mark on the world. The shooters are a colorful parade (thanks in part to the costume design of Aaron Swenson) of embittered egos and poor slobs. Some of them were simply angry, but as the book and song lyrics suggest, the story history tells is that most were likely suffering from extreme individualism and/or mental illness.
In Aaron Cole, I found a nicely embodied folk singer personification of The Balladeer. A one-man Greek chorus, he sings of these anti-heroes in the genres of country bluegrass, delta blues, and big-band jazz. In “The Ballad of Booth,” a flip yet sincere tune about the nation’s first presidential assassin, I found Cole’s voice eerily similar to that of renowned singer/songwriter Billy Joel in his song titled The Ballad of Billy the Kid. It is very reminiscent in both vocal tone and style. The song’s rhymes and rhythms mock the gravity of the crime and offset the lyrics’ preachiness: Angry men don’t write the rules and guns don’t right the wrong.
Doug Irey is believable as the dashing and impassioned John Wilkes Booth, who scribbles his pro-confederate motives in his diary and plots his course through American history. The Balladeer sings “Damn, you Johnny/You paved the way,” and Irey helps us to feel with him the weight of those words as he realizes the truth— the indelible mark he so desperately wishes to leave on the world, has been achieved not with his acting, but with his successful assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Charles Guiteau, is portrayed charmingly by the dapper Dustin Bolt, who as the self-promoting, career opportunist, beautifully sings about going to the Lord as he jazz-hands his way through “The Ballad of Guiteau.”
As Leon Czolgosz, Allen Smith is altogether persuasive with his plebeian rage and well-controlled, consistent Polish accent and he delivers a solid performance. His counterpoint is nicely found in Marissa Poole’s portrayal of Emma Goldman, the political activist he is obsessed with and whom he has been stalking.
Andrew Nadon’s interpretation of the soft-spoken Giuseppe “Joe” Zangara, an immigrant bricklayer who blames his chronic abdominal pain on a supernatural ability he imagines Franklin D. Roosevelt to possess, is accurate in the details and he is certainly a great fit for the part in terms of stature and physicality. His attempt at an Italian accent seemed to interfere with his diction, though, and this made it hard for me to understand what he was speaking or singing, and eventually I sort of gave up on trying to at all.
Jesse Peery as the ignored bonhomie, Samuel Byck, is both emotively powerful and deliciously humorous in his portrayal of the man who attempts to hijack an airplane in an effort to take out “Tricky Dicky” Nixon.
Darla Davis’s comedic timing and affectation of the disillusioned and endearingly daft, Sara Jane Moore, is impeccable and her housewife persona takes on a mad-hatter like quality.
Randall Eames as the stoic and morose, John Hinckley Jr. demonstrates strong character choices that seem to be well thought out. So much so, that I found the resemblance to the real and infamous man and his mannerisms, uncanny.
Karli Lowry’s Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme seemed a very different person from the blissed-out, Manson worshipping young woman I’ve come to know through the magic of documentary film making and television news coverage. Her singing however, is quite good and she possesses a very rich, yet mellow voice that is easy to listen to. My only complaint is that it is difficult to hear either her or Eames in several parts of their duet, Unworthy of Your Love. She and Davis play nicely against one another as the two women who tried and failed, to snuff out Gerald Ford.
The play’s arc is a shift in tone to that of psychological realism, where Booth as the eloquent orator gives voice to the hopelessness of one Lee Harvey Oswald (Austin Archer). Invoking Willy Loman, Booth explains that “attention must be paid.” Well, there it is. The common thread that ties these assassins together is that they so desperately crave attention. By reframing Oswald as a Loman figure, however, Kennedy’s killer takes on a tragic dimension, and the play takes itself seriously for a minute. But just for a minute. Archer is poignant and devastatingly human as the disenfranchised Oswald. As I sat watching this show, I couldn’t help but recall Dark Horse’s production of Chicago also directed by Mark; I felt a parallel between the two works, in that they both comment on the cult of celebrity. Food for thought.
I was pleased to find that the promotional artwork I’d seen in the weeks leading up to the show, is very representative of the finished work and helped to correctly set my expectations before curtain. There were a few technical issues during the performance I attended on Friday in Ogden, for example an errant spotlight that lit up the head of the balding man to the front and left of me, which caused giggling by those around me and thereby, distraction. I hope whatever the malfunction is attributable to has already been addressed and will not be allowed to impact future performances.
Overall, the show has been well conceived and well executed, and lovers of Sondheim will likely find that this show is worthy of their love, or at least their appreciation. If you are considering seeing Assassins, you should be aware of a few things. First, the show’s running time is roughly two hours and there is no intermission. Plan ahead. Blanks are fired several times during the show; these are very loud, startling, and leave behind an odor that might be an issue for those with olfactory sensitivities. And finally, this may be Sondheim, but it is not Into the Woods. The show contains adult language (including a few F bombs) and may not be suitable for younger audiences.
Assassins plays February 28th-March 3rd at the Rose Wagner Theatre in Salt Lake City. $25 per ticket. To purchase tickets and for more information, go to: www.darkhorsecompanytheatre.