SHOWING : June 15, 2012 - June 23, 2012
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Next Stage Theatre Company presents "Assassins", Stephen Sondheim’s provocative and disturbing take on the dark side of the American Dream. Depicting the thoughts of nine individuals who killed or tried to kill U.S. Presidents, the musical contrasts the assassins’ claims of righting wrongs with their own shortcomings and motivations of fame, love, and revenge. The work subverts the musical theatre genre by using different styles of American music – from ballads and love songs to Sousa marches and Broadway show tunes – out of context during executions, introspections, a suicide, and assassination attempts. While painting a dark portrait of the American Dream, Assassins also underlines public fascination with criminal acts and media attention. Directed by Rob Hardie
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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 ||
(NOTE: This production changed venues halfway through the run. Although these comments reflect the show as staged during opening weekend, he Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½gradeÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ reflects my overall judgment on both versions. Afterwards, I have a few words about the Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½re-stagingÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ at Alley Stage.)|
Although our Declaration of Independence lists Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½The Pursuit of HappinessÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ as an Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½unalienableÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ (the, word, Mr. Adams, is Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½inalienableÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½) right, our actual Constitution kinda skirts around the whole happiness issue. Even so, we demand our happiness, and when it doesnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t happen, SOMEONE must be to blame, and SOMETHING must be done!
Which is why, according to John Weidman and Stephen SondheimÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s musical Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½Assassins,Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ thirteen people, successfully or not, have tried to kill the President of the United States. In this play, set in a symbolic limbo of a carnival shooting gallery sideshow, we meet nine of them as they tell us what landed them on the delivery end of a gun.
We know some of them Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ everyone learns about John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald in school. Those of us of a certain age, easily remember John Hinkley, Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½SqueakyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore. If we aced American History, we certainly know that Garfield and McKinley were killed in office, but we probably donÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t know anything about their killers (let alone how to spell their names). That leaves a few we donÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t know, even more who donÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t even appear in this show.
Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½AssassinsÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ can be very problematic for many people. Does it glorify these misfits at the expense of their victims? Does it try, in a dark way, to justify their actions? Or is it just an exercise in dark comedy, an excuse to get some laughs at the expense of some dead presidents? I canÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t help but wonder what Jodie Foster thinks of HinkleyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s song, Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½I am Unworthy of Your Love.Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½
As for me, I think the play wants to do something profound Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ it wants us to look at the dark side of the American Dream through the eyes of a group of people for whom that dream has failed. It wants us to take the extraordinary step of empathizing with Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½people not like us,Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ of seeing the human being beneath the skin of the sideshow freak. It wants us to recognize that we are not so very different from the very people we supposedly revile. And it wants to turn that empathy upside-down, making us afraid of these people we were feeling sorry for not two minutes ago.
Script-writer John Weidman wrote the following shortly after the original 1991 Playwrights Horizon production:
Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½Thirteen people have tried to kill the President of the United States. Four have succeeded. These murderers and would-be murderers are generally dismissed as maniacs and misfits who have little in common with each other, and nothing in common with the rest of us.
Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½Assassins suggests otherwise. Assassins suggests that while these individuals are, to say the least, peculiar Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ taken as a group they are peculiarly American. And that behind the variety of motives which they articulated for their murderous outbursts, they share a common purpose: a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed sense of entitlement.Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½
This is, in fact, one of my favorite Sondheim scores, filled with musical stylings that exemplify the history of American Music. The score itself, is pure Americana, reflecting each of the eras that produced an Assassin. More to the point, the songs can be funny and chilling at the same time, lyrically provocative as they describe twisted emotions, dark yearnings, and soon-to-be-misplaced passions.
And, over-riding everything is the iconic American dream of making the world notice! Attention must be paid! The fact that the witnesses at the attempted killing of FDR are every bit as shallow and attention-craving as the killers themselves is the key to this show, the song that tells us weÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½re seeing not the marginal and insane, but the there-but-for-fortune-go-I people-like-us.
And, itÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s a measure of the strength of this show that, even though I think director Rob Hardie and the next Stage Production completely miss the boat on this theme, despite a WTF ending that is many times less effective than that written, this show still works, still moves and tickles, still gives a tuneful look into the darkest reaches of American-Dream-gone-wrong.
Let me try to articulate my reservations about this production. It seemed to me that Mr. Hardie made the unfortunate choice to go for cheap laughs, to emphasize the wide-eyed craziness of these people. While this approach is definitely funnier than a more measured interpretation, ItÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s also more donuts-for-dinner forgettable. For this outing, weÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½re not touring the side show of a darker American History with these people. TheyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½re not our fellow-travelers Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ theyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½re the exhibits. WeÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½re there to gawk at them, to point and stare, to more or less Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½Look at the Freaks.Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ Yes, all the marvelously ambiguous Sondheim lyrics and juxtapositions are there, not ignored, but they are now stuff to be endured while waiting for the next laugh.
And the bottom line for me, with this approach, is that over-the-top crazy-people become alienating. We canÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½walk in their shoesÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ when weÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½re laughing at them.
And, Mr. Hardie ends the show by having the cast Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½turn onÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ the side show proprietor, the Red-Suited tempter who talked them into committing murder. Normally the show ends with the cast taking aim at the audience Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ a strong Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½this is what you get for liking meÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ finale. Here though, thereÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s little point to this action beside the obvious Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½HereÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Someone Else to BlameÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ moment, and its dramatic effect is, to say the least, tame. That point has been made many times already, and It just doesnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t ring true for me, leaving me very unsatisfied Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ just another nail in the coffin-lid of my Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½what-do-these-people-have-to-do-with-meÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ response.
Even with this substantial criticism, I found the production more effective than I would have expected. Mr. HardieÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s cast look and sound great, and his design and technical crew have worked magic with the resources available to them. If Matt JonesÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ Booth had a too-quiet-for-Victorian-actor voice. if Katie PattersonÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Sara Jane Moore was more aging hippie than suburban housewife, if Danielle GirardeauÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½SqueakyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ Fromme was more wide-eyed stage whacko than disturbed Manson acolyte, if Don GoodnerÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Hinkley was more petulant adolescent than obsessed young man, if Jeff Boyce was far too old for the not-yet-thirty-when-he-died Leon Czolgosz (so thatÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s how you spell it!), it didnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t stop them or any of the cast from having a wealth of beautifully sung, perfectly realized Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½moments.Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ Everyone here was eccentric and funny, and everyone was able to master SondheimÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s intricate melodies and lyrics. My favorite of the assassins was Zip RampyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Charles Guiteau, a pompous and preening dandy with an elevated sense of adequacy (Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½I killed Garfield because I wanted to be Ambassador to France!Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½), but I also really liked Alan Phelps Zangara (*), Paul GourdeauÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Sam Byck (**), Phyllis GillerÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Emma Goldman, Monte HowellÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Proprietor, and Nick CrawleyÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Balladeer. The cast was filled out by a dynamite ensemble of Ted Persky, Kaylee Bugg, Max Chambers, Cayla Franzman, and Ethan Lasenyik. And, Music Director Annie Cook led them all through the traps and peaks of this difficult score as well as leading the live orchestra with nary an overwhelm-the-singers moment. The show sounded great!
On the other hand, I was a little less fond of the slide shows and projection. Some of the slides had too much information to be read in the short time they were up, others highlighted too many of the differences in the appearances of the actors and their real-life characters, and others were just over-obvious distractions. On the other hand, the Kennedy funeral and assassination footage during Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½Something Just BrokeÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ was the perfect counterpoint Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ the emotional kick that reminded us that these killers did have victims, that these actions Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½brokeÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ the country (for a very short time). More to the point, it (as well as the Balladeer) reminded us that these actions ALL failed to get the killers anything they wanted.
In the final analysis then, I have a strong difference of opinion with Mr. Hardie on what this show is really about, on the emotions and reactions it should evoke in its audience. This did not stop me from appreciating the approach taken here, for what it was. For me, though, it was a series of strong and wonderful moments that added up to a whole that was too much less than the sum of its parts.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
* It has been speculated that ZangaraÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s real target in Miami was Chicago Mayor Cermak, whom he did kill Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ this is based on the fact that Zangara was a marksman in the Italian army and that Cermak had a problem with the Chicago mob. ThatÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s it! That Zangara was never in Chicago, that he was a marksman with a weapon and a distance not used here, that Cermak was killed by the wild spray of gunfire after ZangaraÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s initial shot at FDR is not, I suppose, relevant to the conspiracy-mongers who apparently think ALL Italian immigrants are part of the mob.
** IÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½d actually never heard of this guy or his attempt on Nixon until this show came out. Apparently, his failed highjacking (with the resulting deaths of a pilot and a Police Officer) was described to the media as just that Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ another failed highjacking, lost in a news cycle that was obsessed with Watergate. Apparently, the secret service didnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t want to give anyone any how-to-kill-a-president ideas.
AFTERNOTE ON THE SECOND WEEK MOVE TO THE ALLEY THEATRE:
In one of those Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½Love the Theatre Hate the DramaÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ episodes that weÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ve all come to know and regret, Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½AssassinsÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ was ... ahem Ã¢ï¿½Â¦ given the opportunity to let Next Stage move into its new Alley Stage home sooner than expected. Because of the new venue, many moments had to be completely restaged, and one role recast (director Rob Hardie stepped into the role of [Deleted by the I-Still-Have-Friends-in-Both-Camps Police] and didnÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½t completely embarrass himself).
Aside from the remarkable achievement of completely restaging the show in less than a week, I have to say the more intimate venue really helped the show. Mr. Jones now came across as a lot stronger as Booth, the projection screens were repositioned in less-distracting line-of-sight areas, and, the Guiteau execution was many times more effective (my College Directing professor was RIGHT about weak/strong stage positions Ã¢ï¿½ï¿½ who knew?). The band and sound design were, again, well balanced and the closeness mitigated most of the alienation I felt opening weekend.
On the other hand, I still hated the ending and the over-the-top Fromme/Moore sequence, but, overall, I left the theatre much happier, giving my grade here a bit of a bump.
And, the show did generate a boatload of (not rancorous) discussion between myself and Mr. Hardie, and thatÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s always a pleasure, and very much what this production really wanted to do.
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by David Shire (music), Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics)