HILLBARN THEATRE BRINGS THE VILLAINS OF ‘ASSASSINS ’ SONDHEIM’S BRILLIANT DISTURBING MUSICAL
SINCE THE FIRST OF 2023 IT HAS BEEN A TRAGEDY OF GUN VIOLENCE FINALLY ‘ASSASSINS’ WINS THEIR PRIZE PRESENTING THE UPSIDE-DOWN VERSION OF THE AMERICAN DREAM.
Review by Vince Mediaa
The Hillbarn Stage goes quiet at the beginning of each performance of ASSASSINS, Artistic Director Randy O’Hara points out the mass shootings at Half Moon Bay, Monterey Park and others cities that have suffered from recent gun violence. He asks for a moment of silence. The Hillbarn Theatre continues their 82nd season with the dark and powerful ASSASSINS through February 12th. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman. ASSASSINS was one of the highlights of the 1990 musical season and he felt this was one work he was most proud of. It's a dark, moving and disturbing topic that changed the political feel of Broadway. Hillbarn Conservatory headed by AD O’Hara has produced a superb view of this musical where icons are shot dead and Sondheim's songs are brilliant, bringing to life this true violent U.S. history.
Directed by TBA honoree Joahua Marx he says “I couldn’t help but compare the events that take place in the story with those that we still experience today. Approaching this production in 2023, I feel an obligation to take into account the acts of similar repeated violence that have occurred since the script's original writing.” Marx has cast a brilliant company of Bay Area talent and equipped them with some very poignant guns with an immersive feel on a rich vintage set designed by Christopher Fitzer. The talented, magnetic cast of 16 actors gives this controversial musical respect and power to Sondheim’s words. The bold, compelling local favorite Keith Pinto as the dapper tap dancing Proprietor opens the hundred minute musical with “Everybody’s Got the Right” as he passes out guns to some of the cast members. Pinto is the first voice to set the tone in this gallery of torn American flags, TV monitors and buckets of fried chicken.
ASSASSINS looks at the lives of the nine people who assassinated or attempted to kill American presidents. It never attempts 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.
The score is staggering in depth and his “The Ballad of Booth” performed by the superb Andre Amarotico as Booth and Pinto as the Balladeer is haunting and heartbreaking. Sondheim explores many styles of music as in “Unworthy of Your Love” featuring the serious Nick Kenrick as John Hinckley and the quirky convincing Brigittte Losey as Squeaky Fromme. The music styles range from folk-rock, blues to vaudeville "The Ballad of Guiteau" boldly sung by company and Pinto represents the American dream. He is fully realized and has a passionate stage presence alongside the terrific Ted Zoldan as Charles Guiteau.
“How I Saved Roosevelt” featuring the cast, music director Jad Bernardo, brings out their best, including the accomplished Jesse Cortez as Giuseppe Zangara. Director Marx and his AD Choreographer Leslie Waggoner kept this musical dramatic and sometimes fun. The actors entered from the audience to tell their stories of hate, sadness and need. The attention grabbing Proprietor watches over the assassinations with his dapper smile. It is a clever move by Marx and Waggoner that brings that Sondheim touch of horror to American history’s worst moments.
Designer Fitzer created a vast playground of levels and props that includes frames of lights crafted by lighting designer John Benard. The lighting becomes a character in the dark musical, and Benard’s design of pools of light and shadows works well to highlight some of the horror of each assassin’s story. The set adds the audience at point blank to these killers and upfront to political mayhem.
This cast of killers is convincing in conveying their insanity, fear, loneliness, and madness. 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 people and misfit killers together. Their motives range from politics to personal matters to insanity. The performances are eccentric from this cast, Amarotico 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. The charismatic Benjamin Ball is excellent as Leon Czolgosz whose radical politics drive him to kill William McKinley. Ball is pitch perfect in “The Gun Song” along with Amarotico, Zoldan and the frenetic Lovgren.
The elegant Zoldan as the dapper dressed Charles Guiteau who kills Garfield, then does a morbid dance as he swings from the gallows as he sings “The Ballad of Guiteau” with Pinto. The outlandish Hayle Lovgren is hilarious as the scatterbrained Sara Jane Moore, whose attempt to kill Gerald Ford goes awry. The over the top Santa dressed Andrew Cope, as the loudmouth lunatic Sam Byck, whose effort to kill Nixon failed in a big way. Cope does a solid performance of “Another National Anthem”. The rest of the players River Bermudez-Sanders, Wynne Chan, Angela Harrington, Zachary Isen, and as Emma Goldman the marvelous Shelby Stewart fill out the cast. The young talented Leo Itzkovitz and Rhys Townsager play the preteen boy Billy who are both impressive.
All of the assassins appear before Lee Harvey Oswald authentically played by Julio Chavez transformation into the Dallas killer. Chavez brings a dark insanity to Oswald as the company encourages him to follow his task. The cast settles 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 death of JFK; on the monitors. When the news breaks that "The President is dead," 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.
The production team for ASSASSINS includes stage manager Kalon Thibodeaux who has a huge set to manage actors entering the stage from every corner of the Hillbarn. The accomplished Y. Sharon Peng Brooke costumes are authentic and the shabby, stinky Santa suit for Byck is classic, but the Proprietor is a scene stealer in his dapper breasted suit. The 60’s look she creates for Squeaky and Moore - the two women killers, is classic detail to the era and Lincoln is perfect. William Springhorn Jr. is weapons manager for the many guns and rifles used as props and matches Indelicato’s sound design to every gun shot we hear in the show. Music director Bernardo striking six member band is perched over the stage and can be seen through a glass window. I am impressed with this design I can see the music performed. Assistant music director Dara Phung on keyboard, Lane Saunders on Drums, Chris Kuo and Danny Min on guitars, and the amazing Paula Filseth on violin.
"There's Another National Anthem, folks. For those who never win ..for the ones who might have been." This could be a line from an election ad yet Sondheim, and Weidman wrote it for this musical. They are pursuing an upside-down version of the American Dream. Hillbarns stunning ASSASSINS is an unsettling musical for our current times. Yet this powerhouse show will challenge you. As the theme comes to a close the young boy Billy is center stage and we ask why. Do not miss this production, it is a brilliant thought provoking musical.
Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory Presents
Book by John Weidman
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Josh Marx
Choreographed and Assistant Directed by Leslie Waggoner
Music Direction by Jad Bernardo
Must Close – Feb 12th
1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd.,
Foster City, CA 94404
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes - no intermission
Tickets are available at
Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/HillbarnTheatre
Photos by Tracy Martin and Mark Kitaoka
Executive Director, Brian Malte of the Hope and Heal Fund will engage the performers and audience in a conversation about the vital need for a collaborative approach to keep our homes and communities free and safe from gun violence.
Gun violence claimed over 35,000 lives in California in the past decade.
Ticket holders for any performance may join us for this community engagement discussion at 3:30pm.
Andre Amarotico* (Booth), Benjamin Ball (Czolgosz), River Bermudez-Sanders (Ensemble, u/s Zangara + Guiteau), Wynne Chan (Ensemble, u/s Fromme), Julio Chavez (Oswald, u/s Byck + Czolgosz), Andrew Cope (Byck), Jesse Cortez (Zangara), Angela Harrrington (Goldman Ensemble/ u/s Moore), Zachary Isen (Ensemble, u/s Hinckley + Oswald), Nick Kenrick (Hinckley), Brigitte Losey (Fromme), Hayley Lovgren (Moore), Keith Pinto* (Balladeer/Proprietor), Shelby Stewart (Ensemble, u/s Goldman), Ted Zoldan (Guiteau), Leo Itzkovitz (the boy), Rhys Townsager (the boy).
* Indicates member of Actors’ Equity Association
The creative team features Christopher Fitzer (Set & Prop Design), Y. Sharon Peng (Costume Design), John Bernard (Lighting Design), Jules Indelicato (Sound Design), William Springhorn Jr., (Weapons Master/training) Daniel Cadigan (AV Consultant), Chai Kohen Projection/AV design