West Coast Ensemble continues its tradition of presenting some of Los Angeles’ finest intimate theater musicals (Floyd Collins, Zanna Don’t, Sunday In The Park With George) with an absolutely first-rate new staging of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins. Of the three Assassins productions I’ve seen over the past 15 months, this one features the strongest cast—an utterly sensational one at that—and benefits enormously from the imaginative direction of Richard Israel, fresh from his unanimously praised 1776.

Assassins is not your run-of-the-mill musical, to put it mildly, and not your usual Sondheim work for that matter. A show about the men and women who assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, United States Presidents is far from standard musical theater fare, and Sondheim is not usually known for writing songs which you leave the theater singing.

Yet Assassins has become one of the most popular and most produced of Sondheim’s shows and yes, you WILL leave the theater singing (or at least humming) “Everybody’s Got The Right,” and doubtless several other Sondheim tunes as well.

Considering America’s obsession with the “15 minutes of fame” that come to bank robbers, serial killers, and reality show contestants, it’s probably not surprising that there should be an inherent fascination with political assassins (or would-be assassins). Lee Harvey Oswald, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, John Wilkes Booth, and John Hinkley are among those whose fame has lasted far longer than the 15 minutes predicted by Andy Warhol.

What exactly prompted these four Americans, and a half dozen other, lesser known men and women, to conceive of a crime, not only against another human being, but against America itself? In a series of songs and dramatic/comedic scenes, Assassins elucidates and entertains in equal measure.

Besides offering some of the best character roles ever written for musical theater performers, Assassins is a show which encourages originality from its director. Sight Unseen’s production last year set Assassins under a circus tent. Earlier this year, director Oanh Nguyen transformed the Chance Theatre into a shooting gallery, and cut the cast size from Broadway’s 16 down to a mere 9.

Israel’s production (with a cast of 12) has its own innovations, the most notable being the casting of a woman in the role of the Balladeer, the observer who comments with an often bemused irony on the actions of men and women whose passion is the mirror opposite of his/her own dry detachment. Traditionally, it is the Balladeer who doubles as Lee Harvey Oswald. In Israel’s production, the Proprietor, who usually leads the rousing opener “Everybody’s Got The Right” and then pretty much disappears, gets the plum role of Oswald. In practical terms, a third major woman’s role is added to the production, and the actor playing the Proprietor has a compelling reason to stick around for curtain calls. Artistically, both changes work equally well.

From the striking and powerful opening scene, we know we are in the hands of a master director. One by one, the Proprietor (an electric Shannon Stoeke as God? the Devil?) recruits “volunteers” from the audience to “go out and kill a President,” until the stage is filled with would-be killers belting out “Everybody Has The Right.” A stunning opener, which augers well for things to come.

It has been said that a stage director’s most important job is to pick the right actors. In this aspect as well, Israel gets highest marks. His cast, which includes many West Coast Ensemble favorites, could not be improved upon, beginning with the lovely Dana Reynolds as the Balladeer and the lean and lanky Christopher Davis Carlisle, an intense and poignant John Wilkes Booth, dueting in the folksy “Ballad Of Booth.”

Imaginative Israel touches include

•A sequence set in an “Assassins’ Bar” with the Proprietor as bartender

•Spectators surrounding would-be Franklin D. Roosevelt assassin Giuseppe Zangara, seated in an electric chair, as they sing “How I Saved Roosevelt,” a song which culminates with the Proprietor pulling the switch

•The assassins literally enveloping the audience as they belt out “Another National Anthem,” at once rousing and frightening

•Everyday Americans of multiple eras reacting to Kennedy’s assassination in the moving “Something Just Broke,” and then changing before our eyes into the assassins we have come to know (and not necessarily love)

Interestingly for a musical, some of Assassins most memorable moments are purely dramatic (or comedic) ones including:

•Nutso beauty Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and equally bonkers housewife Sara Jane Moore bonding over Kentucky Fried Chicken

•Samuel Byck recording a rambling message to Leonard Bernstein all the while scarfing down a sandwich and downing it with a bottle of Yoo-hoo, and later, behind the wheel of his car, recording an equally disturbing (and disturbed) message to Richard Nixon

•John Wilkes Booth in the Texas School Book Depository, seductively persuading Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President Kennedy

Not only are these scenes compellingly written (by Weidman), they offer scene-stealing moments for the actors portraying them: Darrin Revitz as “Squeaky,” her wide eyes revealing the nutcase within; Beth Lane, a folksy/loopy Moore; John O’Brian, riveting as Byck (so much happening behind those eyes); Carlisle, erasing every memory of his flamboyant Dodger in December’s Twist, as an intense and passionate Booth; and Stoeke, a striking presence as Oswald.

The cast shines equally well vocally. Stoeke, fresh from the Camelot tour, proves himself a showman extraordinaire with pipes to match. Pizzazzy and presidential Steven Connor (Charles J. Guiteau) gets those jazz hands a-movin’ in show-stopping “The Ballad of Guiteau.” Larry Lederman (Leon Czolgosz) lends his fine, raspy voice to “The Gun Song,” later joined by Carlisle, Connor, and Lane in turn-of-the-century barbershop harmony. A geekily perfect David Nadeau (John Hinkley), glasses seemingly twice the size of his face, duets the exquisite “Unworthy Of Your Love” with Revitz, fine singers both. Jim Holdridge is a very powerful and moving Giuseppe Zangara in “How I Killed Roosevelt.” Finally, Reynolds’ crystal pure soprano lends a sense of discovery to the usually male Balladeer’s many songs.

In smaller roles, Andrea Covell is very good as an alternately jolly/cynical Emma Goldman (among others) and future leading man Sterling Beaumon has lots of fun as a recalcitrant child (et al), giving new meaning to the word “W-a-a-a-a-a-h!!!!”

Kudos are due musical director Johanna Kent for her fine work in making Assassins sound as good as it most certainly does. Musical accompaniment is provided by a live piano and Richard Berent’s prerecorded “orchestral realizations,” a device which works well (in most instances), adding a “bigger” sound to the musical numbers than budget limitations would normally allow.

Stephen Gifford’s scenic design features a wood planked backdrop of revolving panels, used imaginatively in the show’s many set changes. Lisa D. Katz’s lighting is striking and mood-enhancing, and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg (who else?) designed a panoply of costumes spanning time and economic status. Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is her usual fine work, one particularly memorable example being the subtle sounds of night driving accompanying Byck’s behind the wheel anti-Nixon rant.

For those like myself who’ve seen Assassins before, Israel’s vision makes the experience fresh and new. For those discovering Assassins for the first time, there could be no better introduction than this outstanding production, another feather in West Coast Ensemble’s multi-plumed cap.

The El Centro Theater, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood. Through September 28. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets: or 323-460-4443.

–Steven Stanley
July 18, 2008
Photo: David Elzer

Comments are closed.