Haste is of the essence in catching Red Blanket Productions’ superb intimate stage revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, not simply because only weeks remain in what looks to be a sold-out run at the Pico Playhouse but because, if Actors Equity has its way, starting next June you will never again see such a 99-seat production in Los Angeles County. Ever. (More on that later.)
Assassins is not your run-of-the-mill Broadway hit, nor is this musical about the men and women who assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, United States Presidents run-of-the-mill Sondheim fare (if any Sondheim musical could be called “run-of-the-mill”).
Notwithstanding, Assassins has become one of Sondheim’s most produced shows, its popularity explained in part by America’s obsession with the “15 minutes of fame” that come to bank robbers, serial killers, reality show contestants, and political assassins (or would-be assassins) like Lee Harvey Oswald, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, John Wilkes Booth, and John Hinkley whose fame has lasted far longer than the 15 minutes predicted by Andy Warhol.
In a series of songs and dramatic/comedic scenes that both elucidate and entertain, Assassins attempts to explain 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.
Perhaps more than any other Sondheim musical, Assassins encourages and even requires originality from its director, its non-traditional structure alternating song and spoken word vignettes without the slightest trace of a linear storyline.
Director Dan Fishbach more than succeeds at this task, aided and abetted by as crackerjack a team of musical theater triple threats and behind-the-scenes creative talents as any director could wish for.
Fishbach’s vision is evident from the show’s opening moments, the first to make imaginative use of scenic designer Alex Kolmanovsky’s ingenious set, whose ripped-open brick walls suggest an America torn apart by the deeds of Assassins’ eclectic band of protagonists.
The commanding presence and booming baritone of Cole Cuomo’s ominous Proprietor open the proceedings with a bang as the evening’s ringleader recruits a motley bunch of would-be assassins to “go out and kill a President,” distributing to each the weapon he or she will use to America-altering effect, and before long “Everybody Has The Right” has Assassins’ wannabe killers belting out one of Sondheim’s catchiest melodies ever. (Whoever said “Sondheim doesn’t write songs you can hum” was wrong about this one.)
Dynamic, golden-throated Nick Tubbs then takes center stage as the wryly observant Balladeer, who will, over the course of the next two hours, comment with an often bemused irony on the actions of men and women whose passion and determination prove the mirror opposite of his own studied detachment.
It’s hard to imagine a more powerful dead-ringer for John Wilkes Booth than Travis Rhett Wilson as the actor/assassin who sets the chain of future killers and would-be killers in motion, his tale recounted in the folksy Balladeer-Booth duet of “The Ballad Of Booth.”
Stomach pain-plagued loser Giuseppe Zangara (a terrific Jason Peter Kennedy, reprising the role he played for Coeurage Theatre Company a few years back) soon finds himself persuaded by Booth to shoot FDR, a failed assassination that sends the Italian immigrant to the electric chair and has Assassins’ ubiquitous Ensemble (the all-around fabulous Sean Benedict, Dominic De Armey, Sandy Mansson, Bryan Vickery, Selah Victor, and Paul Wong) joining voices to brag in song about “How I Saved Roosevelt.”
Adam Hunter Howard vanishes inside the blue-collar uniform and Polish accent of William McKinley killer Leon Czolgosz, the bottle factory laborer’s devastating explanation of the horrors he has witnessed at work and his conversation with anarchist activist Emma Goldman (a feisty Victor) both proving eye-openers.
Claire Adams and Janna Cardia make two of the evening’s most indelible impressions as nutso beauty Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and equally bonkers housewife Sara Jane Moore, their bonding over Kentucky Fried Chicken in one of Assassin’s most darkly amusing sequences showing off the distaff duo’s considerable comedic gifts.
The haunting harmonies of “The Gun Song” provide a fine vocal showcase for the four-part harmonies of Cardia, Howard, Jeff Alan-Lee (as James Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau), and Wilson.
David Gallic is both hilarious and mesmerizing in the mostly non-musical role of Santa suit-clad would-be Nixon killer Samuel Byck, seen behind the wheel of his car recording a rambling message to Leonard Bernstein and later an equally disturbing (and disturbed) message to Tricky Dick.
Assassins’ most unlikely couple may well be Charles Manson disciple Squeaky Fromme and the Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley (an appropriately creepy Zach Lutsky), whose duet of the exquisite Unworthy Of Your Love” is at once funny, disturbing, and touching.
The splendid Lee combines the debonair and the deranged as bearded Guiteau, duetting “The Ballad Of Guiteau” with Tubbs before “Another National Anthem” unites all the Assassins but one in a rousing yet horrifying salute to dispossessed Americans everywhere.
Assassins’ most unforgettable scene may well be the one that unites the heretofore unseen Lee Harvey Oswald (the boyishly appealing and therefore all the more frightening Benedict), seduced into assassinating President Kennedy by none other than the spirit of John Wilkes Booth.
Ensemble members Vickery, Wong, and DeArmey deliver engaging cameos as (respectively) Booth associate David Herold, forced at gunpoint to write in an injured Booth’s diary, President Gerald Ford, who gets not one but two unsuccessful assassins, and a Pugsley-like child with an ear-piercingly recalcitrant “W-a-a-a-a-a-h!!!!”
A couple of Fishbach’s imaginative touches make particularly strong impressions. The director takes the ensemble number “Something Just Broke” (added for the 1992 London production and not always included in subsequent Assassins) and transforms it from JFK-specific into a universal look at how each and every assassination attempt, whether failed or successful, affected the nation. Later, Fishbach’s passing-the-torch re-envisioning of the show’s Finale Ultimo ends the show on a memorably chilling note.
Choreographer Lili Fuller’s striking musical staging complements Fishbach’s direction to perfection, while musical director whiz Anthony Lucca’s backstage band (Lucca, Ryan McDiarmid, Conor Malloy, Max Naseck, and Ethan Sherman) provide expert live instrumental backup.
Additional design credits are shared by as fine a team as you’ll see in any 99-seat plan production—Stephanie Beth Petagno’s spot-on multi-period costumes, Will Adashek’s dramatic lighting design, Philip G. Allen’s pitch-perfect sound design, and Shen Heckel’s just-right props (including, not surprisingly, gun after gun after gun after gun after gun). Summer Grubauch is stage manager.
Unfortunately Actors Equity’s odious elimination of their very own 99-seat plan set to begin June 1, 2016 will make a production like Assassins (with its cast of sixteen, including seven AEA members) cost-prohibitive, so see it now (and contact Equity President Kate Shindle at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AEAPresident to let Equity know how you feel about its planned decimation of our Los Angeles intimate theater scene).
In the meantime, do not miss Assassins at the Pico Playhouse. I’m guessing that Mr. Sondheim himself would give pistol-barrels-up to this sensational revival.
Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.
September 4, 2015
Photos: Will Adashek