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“Different” “dark” “strange” “offensive” “weird” “odd” – all words uttered by audience members departing a recent performance of Assassins, the current Sonoma Arts Live presentation of the Narrow Way Stage Company production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical.
How else to describe a show that opens at a carnival with a barker singing “Everybody’s Got the Right (to be Happy)” while awarding handguns instead of stuffed animals as prizes and ends with a rogues gallery of assassins and would-be assassins taking aim at the audience and firing? How about “mesmerizing”, “melodic”, “disturbing”, “challenging”, and “excellent”?
Sondheim dissects the “American Dream” with a look at those whose dreams ended in national nightmares. Starting with “pioneer” John Wilkes Booth and running through John Hinckley, Assassins is basically a revue with individual scenes involving the different plots linked via the carnival barker and a “balladeer”. Not to be confused with a historical document of any kind, Sondheim seems to be asking what links an actor, a disgruntled office-seeker, an anarchist, a menial laborer, an ex-marine, a psychiatric patient, a housewife and mother, a cult member, and an unsuccessful songwriter obsessed with an actress. Could it simply be anger and frustration taken to an extreme for their inability to achieve the “American Dream” of fame and fortune? Isn’t that dream really a fantasy?
Not the brightest, bounciest subject matter for an American musical, but Sondheim gives it the full treatment, with the clever conceit to pattern each vignette with the style of music appropriate to the era, a challenge with which musical director Sherrill Peterson and her five-piece band meet head-on atop the carnival set.
Co-directors Trevor Hoffman and Skylar Evans have assembled a cast of some of the most talented actors and singers in the area. Tim Setzer brings a malevolent glee to his role as the Carnival Proprietor. Adam Blankenship, usually a reliable second lead in romantic comedies, explodes on the stage as the Balladeer, delivering some of the darkest material with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step. Blankenship’s boyish looks and affable stage presence are in deep contrast to the horrors of which he sings. Co-director Hoffman played John Wilkes Booth in the opening weekend performances with Patrick St. John assuming the role till closing. I found Hoffman’s Booth more cerebral and controlled and St. John’s Booth more fiery and unpredictable. Two different interpretations of one dangerous man – both done well.
Comic relief – such as it is – is provided by Nora Summers and Julia Holsworth as Gerald Ford’s attempted assassins Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane More. Summers delivers Fromme’s blind devotion and simple, matter-of-fact recitation of the tenets of the Manson “family” in a manner both horrifying and hilarious. Holsworth’s Moore, while finding humor in ineptitude, reminds us there’s a dark side to middle class America.
Rick Love, as Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau, literally dances his way to the gallows. Zane Walters, as McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz, has a couple of nice scenes (including one with Sarah Bird Passemar as famed anarchist Emma Goldman) involving perceived injustices and inequality in American society. Brett Mollard is an intense Giuseppe Zangara, FDR’s attempted assassin. At a preview performance I attended, Mollard’s thickly-accented Zangara was often unintelligible, but at a more recent performance Mollard brought clarity and diction along with intensity to the role, especially when singing from the electric chair. Eric Weiss’ John Hinckley is the most clearly unhinged of the bunch, probably a distinct dramatic choice as a result of being the only assassin ever found not guilty by reason of insanity. Sondheim gives him the closest thing to a “love song” in this show with “Unworthy of Your Love”, a duet of sorts with Summers’ Fromme.
Assassins dramatic pinnacle comes from two monologues delivered by Matthew Loewenstein in a stunningly powerful performance as the least known attempted-assassin Samuel Byck. Byck, who plotted to fly a plane into the White House and kill Richard Nixon, recorded his insane ramblings and mailed them to people such as Leonard Bernstein and Jonas Salk. What’s most unsettling about these scenes is how eerily similar the insane ramblings of a deeply disturbed individual sound when compared with what passes as political discourse among some elements of the American populace today.
The show concludes with the assassins converging on the Texas Schoolbook Depository and their encouragement of Lee Harvey Oswald (Ryan Whitlock, good in his presentation of a morally conflicted Oswald, historically accurate or not) to join their ranks, bring immortality to himself and relevancy to them again. No need for a spoiler alert here.
The shows penultimate song is “Something Just Broke”, Sondheim’s examination of how each “event” leads to a collective national soul-searching and a desire to “fix” things, and yet… The assassins take the stage one last time and remind us all that “Everybody’s Got the Right (to be Happy), that everybody’s got a right to their dreams.
America – where any child can grow up to be the President.
America – where any child can grow up to kill the President.
Sondheim is to be applauded for taking on what to many would be inappropriate subject matter and through the unexpected vehicle of the American musical encourage to encourage a reexamination of one of the very foundations of American society. Narrow Way Stage Company and Sonoma Arts Live are to be applauded for presenting such a challenging program to this community. The multi-generational artists involved are to be applauded for their uniformly exceptional work. I cannot express enough how good these performers are in voice and in character with this exceedingly challenging material.
Please don’t go and expect Into the Woods and its roots in reality make it infinitely darker than Sweeney Todd. Assassins is a unique piece of theatre that raises interesting questions and, while providing no answers, allows for the kinds of post-show conversations and debates that all great theatre should foster.
Simply put, give this show a shot.
Narrow Way Stage Company and Sonoma Arts Live present
through October 4
Thur, Fri, Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2pm
Sonoma Community Center
276 E Napa St
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-4626 ext 1
Photos by Ray Mabry