SONDHEIM’S BRILLIANT DISTURBING MUSICAL IS CHILLING AND THIS LASC PRODUCTION FINALLY LETS THESE ‘ASSASSINS’ WIN THEIR PRIZE.
A perfect 2016 fall Election season for a little Sondheim political power. It sets the tone for the battle in November at the Ballot box. The Los Alto’s Stage Company opens their new season with the dark and sharp ASSASSINS at The Bus Barn Theatre through September 25th. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman. ASSASSINS was one of the highlights of the 1990 musical season. It's a dark, moving and disturbing topic that changed the political feel of Broadway. LASC has produced a superb view of this musical were icons are shot dead and Sondheim's songs are brilliant bringing to life the corruption of history. This is his controversial musical that started in the 90’s but took 14 years to get to Broadway and scored 5 Tonys. Few companies produce this show yet we have a couple of Bay stages working on productions for later this season.
Directed by Lee Ann Payne, she has assembled a talented, keen cast of sixteen actors to give this Carnival booth a brilliant Bull’s Eye Target look. The bold, compelling David Murphy as the Proprietor opens the hundred minute musical with “Everybody’s Got the Right” as he passes out guns to some of the cast members. Murphy is the first voice to set the tone of the fairground shooting gallery booth.
ASSASSINS looks at the lives of the nine people who assassinated or attempted to kill American presidents. It never attempts to to make them heroes or monsters; instead it explores a fascinating world where the killers become famous, but are left to ask, "Where's my prize". Seeking love and attention, Sondheim creates these real people into likable characters who can't resist the urge to make a statement even though they know their actions will end their lives.
Stephen Sondheim’s score is staggering in depth and his “The Ballad of Booth” performed by Chase Campbell as Booth and Brian Palac as the Balladeer is haunting and heartbreaking. His lyrical depth, and its melodic invention easily explores other styles of music as in “Unworthy of Your Love” featuring the serious Conner Smith as John Hinckley and the quirky, Alea Selburn, as Squeaky Fromme.
The music styles range from folk-rock to vaudeville "The Ballad of Guiteau" sung by Palac who represents the American dream, clearly has the best voice in this cast. He is a powerhouse and has a passionate stage presence alongside Ken Boswell as Charles Guiteau. A weak link in the production is the uneven singers in the cast, yet their acting transcends their average voices. “How I Saved Roosevelt” featuring the cast, music director, Katie Coleman, brings out their best, including Anthony Stephens as Giuseppe Zangara. Director Payne kept the musical as dramatic and at times humorous as her actors enter to tell their stories of hate, sadness and need.
Payne’s production benefits from its setting in a carnival shooting gallery, that includes a screen for projections designed by Ron Gasparienetti. The set puts the sold out audiences point blank to these killers and upfront to political mayhem. Weidman's book moves from a 1933 attempt on FDR's life to the 1881 killing of James Garfield, all in an attempt to show what binds this bizarre group of killers and misfired killers together. Their motives from politics to personal matters to insanity form Sondheim and Weidman's dark important theme.
All of the assassins appear before Lee Harvey Oswald authentically played by the lanky, Drew Jones, in the Texas School Book Depository, urging him to pull the trigger: "Without you, we're just footnotes in a history book - with you, we're a force of history." In Sondheim's masterful song "Something Just Broke," as everyday citizens react to the shock of the assassinations, we see the zapruder film and shooting of JFK; but when the news breaks that "The President is dead," the projections stop, and these ordinary Americans are left alone to struggle with their overwhelming grief and tales of where they were at the time of Kennedy's death.
Payne gets strong performances from her cast , Campbell is intense as Booth, whose rage at how his country was torn apart does not end even after he kills Lincoln, the man he holds responsible. Andy Cooperhauss is also excellent as Leon Czolgosz whose radical politics drive him to kill William McKinley. There are also some terrific comic performances: The elegant Ken Boswell as the dapper dressed Charles Guiteau who kills Garfield, then does a morbid dance as he swings from the gallows; Philomena Block is hilarious as the scatterbrained Sara Jane Moore, whose attempt to kill Gerald Ford goes awry; and the over the top Santa dressed, Todd Wright, as the loudmouth, lunatic Sam Byck, whose effort to kill Nixon failed in a big way - like everything else he did in his life. Chloe Angst, Brittney Mignano, Jery Rosas, Aaron Hurley as the bumbling President Ford and the young talented Luca Paliska also are all impressive.
The production team for ASSASSINS includes the dramatic pools for light and shadows with a polished feel of Carolyn A. Foot’s lighting design. Y. Sharon Peng’s costumes are authentic and of course her shabby, stinky Santa suit for Byck is a scene stealer, but the 60’s look she creates for Squeaky and Moore - the two women killers, is classic detail to the era. The wigs for the women are fitting and Ken Kilen’s sound design is full of gun shots and rich city sounds. Props man, Ting-Na Wang, had the challenge of finding all the guns for the musical that range from the Dallas rifle to purse and handguns as real as they come. Music director Coleman's striking off stage seven member band fit the carnival like feeling. LASC’s stunning ASSASSINS is the perfect musical for this Election season and Lee Ann Payne has challenged her cast, and they have successfully recreated some of history's darkest moments and given four star justice to Mr Sondheim. Do not miss this production, it is a brilliant thought provoking musical. This is my first visit to Los Altos Stage company, their new season has an impressive line up including YELLOW FACE and CUCKOO'S NEST, more details at the links below. Some tickets remain for ASSASSINS, book them soon.
Los Altos Stage Company Presents
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by John Weidman,
Directed by Lee Ann Payne, Music Director Katie Coleman