A terrifically performed and imaginatively directed revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins makes it three annual musical hits in a row for the young artists of Coeurage Theatre Company, following their inventive downscaling of The Rocky Horror Show and Ovation winner Gregory Nabours’ original song cycle The Trouble With Words.

 2012 brings us Assassins, a musical about the men and women who assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, United States Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan, hardly what you’d call standard musical theater fare, not that Sondheim is predominantly known for writing show tunes in the tradition of Jerry Herman or Kander & Ebb.

Notwithstanding, Assassins has become one of the most popular and most produced of Sondheim’s long list of shows and yes, you will leave the theater singing (or at least humming) “Everybody’s Got The Right,” and several others of its tunes as well.

As for Assassin’s unorthodox themes, it’s probably not surprising that there should be an inherent fascination with political assassins (or would-be assassins) given America’s obsession with the “fifteen minutes of fame” that come to bank robbers, serial killers, and reality show contestants.

In a series of songs and dramatic/comedic scenes, Assassins asks the question, “What exactly prompted these men and women to conceive of a crime, not only against another human being, but against America itself?” The answers it provides are both elucidating and surprisingly entertaining.

Besides offering some of the best character roles ever written for musical theater performers, Assassins encourages and even requires originality from its director, as I’ve noted in previous reviews. Sight Unseen Theatre Group’s Cindy Jenkins set Assassins under a circus tent for a particularly surrealistic journey. Oanh Nguyen transformed the Chance Theatre into a shooting gallery, and cut the cast size from Broadway’s sixteen down to a mere nine. Richard Israel’s production for West Coast Ensemble had a cast of twelve along with its own innovations, the most notable being the casting of a woman in the role of the Balladeer.

 For this latest intimate revival, director Julianne Donelle sticks with the original Broadway lineup of sixteen, with Balladeer Jeremy Lelliott dynamic and charismatic as always as the musical’s wry observer, commenting with an often bemused irony on the actions of men and women whose passion is the mirror opposite of his own dry detachment.

 Donelle’s staging is every bit as ingenious and memorable as her predecessors’, beginning with the gender-bending casting of the always sensational Aimee Karlin as The Proprieter (originated on Broadway by a very unslinky Marc Kudish). After all, who better than a sexy, black-clad seductress to recruit the mostly male bunch of would-be assassins to “go out and kill a President”?

 At sixteen, Donelle’s cast is the biggest I’ve seen so far, and she uses ensemble members Gedaly Guberek, Mark Jacobson, Graham Kurtz, Christopher Roque, Christine Sinacore, and Sammi Smith throughout, as eyewitnesses and in a variety of cameo roles on Brooke Baldwin’s simple but clever, bull’s-eye-filled carnival shooting gallery set.

“Everybody Has The Right” opens Assassins with a show-stopping bang as its wannabe killers belt out one of Sondheim’s catchiest melodies ever. (Whoever said “Sondheim doesn’t write songs you can hum” was wrong about this one.)

 A handsome, gorgeous-voiced Ryan Wagner is a Backstage-reading John Wilkes Booth, the actor/assassin who sets the chain of future killers and would-be killers in motion, his tale recounted in “The Ballad Of Booth” by Balladeer Elliott from a downstage balcony which Donelle makes imaginative use of throughout.

 Giuseppe Zangara (a topnotch Jason Peter Kennedy) is the first grown-up problem child we see persuaded by Booth to cure his ills (in this case a recurring case of stomach pains and a pipe dream to become Ambassador to France) by shooting a President, leading to an unsuccessful attempt to kill FDR that sends Zangara to the electric chair, but not before the Ensemble join voices to brag in song about “How I Saved Roosevelt.”

 At first glance the boyish Jonas Barranca seems too young to have taken his place in history as a Presidential assassin, and a previously reviewed production cast a 60something as William McKinley killer Leon Czolgosz, but like most of the cast, Donelle’s choice of players is actually quite age appropriate, the real-life Czolgosz having been sent to the electric chair at a mere twenty-eight. It is in fact SUNY Fredonia grad Barranca’s youthful appeal that helps make his performance so heartbreakingly real.

Of all Sondheim musicals, Assassins is probably the one whose story is most evenly divided between song and spoken word, in either monolog or dialog form. Barranca’s explanation of the horrors Czolgosz sees in the bottle factory where he works is a powerful one, as is his conversation with anarchist activist Emma Goldman, still barely in her thirties and brought to charming, feminine life by the marvelous Smith.

Nutso beauty Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and equally bonkers housewife Sara Jane Moore bond over Kentucky Fried Chicken in one of Assassin’s most darkly amusing sequences, with Nicole Monet and Kim Reed making the duo about as finger-lickin’ kooky as they come.

The barbershop harmonies of “The Gun Song” provide a fine vocal showcase for Barranca, Moore, Wagner, and the scene-stealing Nick Rocz as President James Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau.

 Gary Lamb plays the mostly non-musical role of would-be Nixon assassin Samuel Byck to disturbing perfection, 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 recording an equally disturbing (and disturbed) message to Richard Nixon behind the wheel of his car.

 Assassins’ most unlikely couple may well be Charles Manson follower Squeaky Fromme and the Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley (the ever-so likeable Jesse Bradley), whose duet of the exquisite “Unworthy Of Your Love” is both creepy and touching, and staged à la Romeo and Juliet with Monet’s Squeaky up on the balcony and Bradley’s Hinckley down below.

Donelle also uses the balcony as the Balladeer’s upstage viewing point and as the stage for Goldman’s impassioned oratory, with more than a hint of a microphone-wielding Evita.

  Though a decade and a half too young and hardly a dead-ringer for the slender, bearded Guiteau, Rozc’s magnetic performance and worth-the-price-of-admission smile override any age/type disparity between performer and role, making his duet of “The Ballad Of Guiteau” opposite Lelliott a textbook example of scene-stealing pizzazz.

“Another National Anthem” unites all the Assassins but one in a both rousing and frightening salute to dispossessed Americans everywhere, ending with Balladeer Lelliott’s transformation into the previously unseen Lee Harvey Oswald, seduced into assassinating President Kennedy by Wagner’s irresistible Booth.

 In addition to Smith as Emma Goldman, other ensemble cameos include a dramatically intense Roque as John Wilkes Booth associate David Herold, forced at gunpoint to write in an injured Booth’s diary, and quirky scene-stealer Kurtz as a recalcitrant child who gives new meaning to the word “W-a-a-a-a-a-h!!!!” As for Guberek, Jacobson, and Sinacore, Donelle gives each his or her standout moments as well.

Ensemble members all cover lead roles, as do understudies Travis Dixon and Nabours, the latter of whom deserves major kudos as musical director. Fresh from his sensational work on The Color Purple, Nabours not only gets splendid vocals and harmonies from Assassins’ oh-so talented cast but has arranged and performed every single instrumental on the production’s full-orchestra-esque prerecorded tracks.

Kara McLeod’s costumes are a picturesque blend of period and character-appropriate outfits. Michelle Stann’s lighting design is a dazzler as well, as are the multitude of guns and other paraphernalia supervised by prop master Roque. Bryan Williams’ sound design features many razor sharp-timed effects (including plenty of bang-bang-bangs), though instrumentals occasionally drowned out unamplified vocals from where this reviewer was seated, second row, far house right.

Noah Gillett is stage manager and Rebecca Eisenberg production stage manager.

Following stellar performances in Coeurage’s previous two musicals, Donelle now proves herself equally award-worthy in the director’s chair. Not only is Coeurage Theatre Company’s Assassins one of the best you’re likely to see on an intimate stage, with Coeurage as Los Angeles’s only “Pay What You Want” theater company, it’s also the best musical bargain in town, bar none. Reserve your seats now, because if you wait too long in what is sure to be a sold-out run, you may find yourself wanting to do some assassinating of your own.

Coeurage Theatre Company, Actors Circle Theatre, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 4, 2012
Photos: Kevin McShane

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