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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Assassins
Fountain Hills Theater
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's recent reviews of She Loves Me and 1776


Chad Campbell, Don Crosby, Casey Karapetian, Michael Stewart, Sky Donovan, Libby Mueller, Ryan Jordan, Nick Hambruch, and Chris Chavez
Photo by Patty Torrilhon
"Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" are three of the unalienable rights that Thomas Jefferson wrote into our Declaration of Independence. Based on his words, everybody has the right to be happy. But what about those who believe that their happiness will come from killing a President of the United States—do they also have that unalienable right? The musical Assassins puts the dreams and beliefs of nine would be (including four successful) presidential assassins on display with a witty Stephen Sondheim score and an interesting, though not quite successful, book by John Weidman. Fountain Hills Theater presents a fairly good and timely production running right around the presidential election.

Set in a quasi-purgatory shooting range overseen by a carny midway proprietor, the show sets up several interwoven vignettes in which the nine assassins occasionally interact across time periods. The killers who are featured include the four who succeeded—John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Lee Harvey Oswald—and five who failed—Guiseppe Zangara, Lynette Fromme, John Hinckley and Sam Byck, who had a crazy idea to hijack a plane and land it on the White House. In addition to these real characters are two fictional ones: the Proprietor of the shooting range, who encourages and arms the assassins by promising that their problems will be solved by killing a president, and a Balladeer who sings and comments on their actions. While we learn a little more about some of the lesser known individuals, it is the stories of Booth and Oswald that hold the production together, including an extended scene set right before Kennedy's assassination in which all of the killers appear to tell Oswald that by killing Kennedy it will validate them all.

I understand that Sondheim and Weidman are providing an alternate riff on the American Dream that everyone aspires to. This is even more glaringly appropriate in the fame-seeking world we live in today, filled with reality TV stars, people who aspire for millions of Twitter followers, and the fact that our soon to be president gleaned most of his fame from hosting a TV show. However, I'm not sure if it's the fact that the show is disturbing or if it's because the show is unapologetic toward these killers that makes it a little hard to digest, especially when it simply attempts to present them as normal, quirky and/or mentally disturbed people who had scores to settle or issues they felt could only be solved by assassinating a president. Perhaps that's the problem I have with Weidman's script as, while Sondheim's score sardonically comments on the killers' actions, the book's attempts to rationalize their behavior with an ending that states that "everybody's got the right to be happy" just fall flat when you are talking about individuals who are murderers. Another show with a Sondheim score, Sweeney Todd, also centers on a murderous character, but it at least paints Todd as a deeply conflicted man who was driven by revenge and who got his comeuppance for his actions. Very little of that introspective connection to the killers or a clear, rationalized understanding of their behavior is felt in this show. Fortunately, there are several haunting moments, and Sondheim's score, which humorously evokes the musical styles of the specific time periods of each assassin, is superb, which helps to detract somewhat from the shortcomings of the book.

The Fountain Hills cast is fairly good. With a commanding presence, Michael Stewart does very well as Booth, painting him as a political idealist with a certain amount of introspective thought. He and Matt McDonald, as the Proprietor, deliver rich performances of two very seductive men. Also quite good are the duo of Libby Mueller and Ryan Jordan as Sara Jane Moore and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme. They provide much of the comedy in the show along with well thought out portrayals. While Jordan is appropriately innocent and spacy, and Mueller is quite unhinged and wacky, their performances are still serious and realistic.

As Oswald, Sky Donovan delivers a nicely layered performance with a range of conflicted feelings that are wisely echoed through his concerned facial expressions. Chad Campbell is full of life as the charming yet self-absorbed Guiteau, and Don Crosby presents the tangent-filled rants of Byck to composer Leonard Bernstein, where he lays out his plans to crash a plane into Nixon's White House, with an intense sincerity. Chris Fiddler does well as the sarcastic narrator, with a mocking wink in his nicely sung songs, and Nick Hambruch, Casey Karapetian, and Chris Chavez round out the merry band of assassins with each getting a moment or two to wisely portray their characters' deep feelings and beliefs. The small ensemble have a few moments to shine, with Leah Klein quite good as Emma Goldman, and Colleen Corliss echoing a powerful level of pain and suffering in the superb number "Something Just Broke" that shows the deep impact the Presidential assassins had on common people.

Director Peter Hill does an exceptional job in achieving rich, defined performances from most of his cast. He also effectively stages the action close to the audience which, combined with the intimacy of the small space, provides plenty of chills and even makes some moments unsettling. Hill also designed the superb set which includes revolving boards with thick blood marks on one side, eerily reminiscent of the red stripes in the American flag, and targets on the other side that are painted to look like the presidents the assassins aimed to kill, or did kill, all in appropriate patriotic shades of red, white and blue and with the Presidential Seal in the center of the stage floor. It's one of the best and effective stage designs I've seen all year. Noel Irick's choreography includes some period appropriate steps and her costumes are a wide range of styles that tie perfectly to the time periods the assassins lived in. Jennifer Whiting's music direction achieves fairly good vocals and a nice sound from the small band. The combination of a capable cast under Diane Senffner's succinct dialect coaching ensures the wide range of accents used in the show are clear and consistent.

While not a completely successful musical, Assassins does have much to recommend it, especially the superb Sondheim score and the intriguing way the show portrays the interaction of these killers across time. Fountain Hills' production features a good cast, clear direction, and a terrific set design which, when combined with the intimate space, provide some truly chilling, thrilling and theatrical moments.

Fountain Hills Theater's production of Assassins runs through November 20th, 2016, with performances at 11445 N. Saguaro Blvd. in Fountain Hills. Information on tickets can be found at www.fhtaz.org or by calling 480-837-9661.

Director/Set Design: Peter J. Hill
Music Director: Jennifer Whiting
Choreographer/ Costumer: Noel Irick
Light Design: Ross Collins
Stage Manager: Alex Gonzalez
Dialect Coach: Diane Senffner Projection/Sound Design: Todd Carrie
Properties: Bob & Alisa Feugate

Cast:
Sara Jane Moore: Libby Mueller
Leon Czolgosz: Casey Karapetian
Samuel Byck: Don Crosby
John Wilkes Booth: Michael Stewart
"Squeaky" Fromme: Ryan Jordan
John Hinkley: Nick Hambruch
Balladeer: Chris Fidler
Lee Harvey Oswald: Sky Donovan
Proprietor: Matt Mcdonald
Giuseppe Zangara: Chris Chavez
Charles Guiteau: Chad Campbell
Emma Goldman/Ensemble: Leah Klein
Housewife/Ensemble: Colleen Corliss
Billy: Connor Klein
Harold/Ensemble: Andrey Lull
Ensemble: Henry Male
Ensemble: Lew Myers


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