Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Assassins at Reprise!
Also see Sharon's review of Babes in Arms
Can you give a standing ovation to a casting director? Sure, credit should go to director David Lee, musical director Steve Orich, and the talented cast itself, but casting director Bruce H. Newberg brought together the perfect 17-member cast for Reprise's one-night-only concert of Assassins. They looked the parts, they acted the parts, and, oh my, could they sing them.
Everyone hit. Every single player hit. Patrick Cassidy played the Balladeer Off Broadway, and reprised the role here, singing with a slightly lighter touch than on the original cast recording. Sometimes narrating and sometimes commenting on the assassins themselves, Cassidy's Balladeer provided an essential barrier between the audience and the assassins. Any time there was any danger of sympathizing with the assassins, the Balladeer stepped in with a wake-up call to reality.
After Kevin Earley's shattering Rutledge in Reprise's 1776, he seemed the natural choice for Assassins' disaffected Southerner, John Wilkes Booth. The choice was a good one. Earley frequently slipped into a softer, gentler version of his voice when playing Booth's calmer moments (such as in "The Gun Song"), but let out the stronger, more chill-inducing voice when Booth was more desperate. Cassidy and Earley together had a "Ballad of Booth" that was at once frightening and moving. And the pause they shared when Booth asked the Balladeer to carry on his story held the world in the balance.
This was a heck of a way to open the show, and it just kept on going. Anthony Crivello's heavily-accented Guiseppe Zangara was suitably creepy; Jody Ashworth's Leon Czolgosz was absolutely haunting in the opening bars of "The Gun Song"; and David Burnham somehow managed to sound psychotically possessive when singing "Unworthy of Your Love" as John Hinckley.
The comedy was everywhere. Kevin Chamberlin ranted up a storm as Sam Byck; Annie Golden's Squeaky Fromme was wide-eyed nuts; and Brooks Almy was terrifically frumpy as Sarah Jane Moore. (Almy had a great moment when, on finding her gun and happily holding it up in the air, she looked just like Sweeney Todd - only with less purpose and infinitely more dangerous.) And leading the parade was Harry Groener as the hilariously deluded Charles Guiteau. Assassins has sometimes been criticized as celebrating these killers; but Groener's performance demonstrates that there is nothing to celebrate here. Sure, his Guiteau is funny, but just beneath the surface is a very dangerous nutball with a gun, and Groener doesn't let that point get forgotten.
The concert format was a little problematic for the piece. Rather than attempt to stage scenes to any degree, the company added a narrator, John Mahoney, who read stage directions aloud. While this sometimes had greater comic value than actually seeing the bits staged (such as when he described Sarah Jane Moore throwing bullets at President Ford), it was at times awkward - particularly when the narration would interrupt a song to describe the action.
The one song that proved disappointing was "Something Just Broke," a song that, for some, carries its own baggage as a number adopted to express our feelings of inexplicable loss over September 11. Perhaps the problem was a technical one of mixing the sound on five voices, perhaps it was something in the performances themselves, perhaps the song just can't live up the added weight of being associated with September 11 - whatever it was, "Something Just Broke" did not put a lump in the throat like it was supposed to.
But everything else was so wonderful, this production of Assassins was not only damned entertaining, but a strong argument for going ahead with a Broadway production of the show. Our country is at war and our state is having a constitutional crisis in a possible attempt to recall our chief executive, and the Los Angeles audience ate up this production like a hungry cat with a bowl of tuna. Audiences are ready for Assassins. Do it right and they will come.
Reprise! Broadway's Best, Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Jim Gardia, Managing Director; presents Assassins, a Staged Reading. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by John Weidman. Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr. Lighting Design John E.D.Bass; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Casting Director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A.; Stage Manager Kim Crabree; General Manager Kelly Estrella; Managing Director Jim Gardia. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music Direction by Stever Orich; Directed by David Lee.
Assassins played for one night only, September 15, 2003, as a benefit for Reprise, at the Freud Playhouse.