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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Los Altos Stage Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's reviews of Veils, The Guys, Life of the Party, and Legally Blonde the Musical

Todd Wright, Connor Smith, Anthony Stephens,
Chase Campbell, Alea Selburn, Philomena Block,
Andy Cooperfauss, and Drew Benjamin Jones

Photo by Richard Mayer
In fairground setting with a stage looking ready for a political campaign speech, a tall hawker called the Proprietor (David Murphy)—with voice full of tempt and lure—picks out passersby and asks each, "You wanna kill a president? ... C'mon and shoot a president" while then selling each a gun. He joins them all in singing "Everybody's Got the Right" ("to be different, even though at times they go to extremes" ... "to their dreams"). Thus opens one of the more controversial musicals ever to be staged, one that companies prolific in producing Stephen Sondheim works often avoid producing.

Assassins, with music and lyrics by the musical genius Sondheim and book by John Weidman, first opened Off-Broadway in 1990 and then took a full fourteen years before finally making it to the Great White Way, pulling in five Tonys. That most of its key principals are the men and women who attempted—and sometimes succeeded—in assassinating American presidents and that it is also jam-packed with plenty of humor, parody, and sarcasm makes Assassins a somewhat bold and risky choice for any theatre company, especially a smaller one with a community-based audience. But it is the choice Los Altos Stage Company has made to open its new season, bravely and unapologetically presenting Assassins in the midst of a presidential election year.

The show explores the motivations of these notorious people, at least half of whom most Americans would no longer recognize their names. In the course of the time-tripping musical, they interact with each other in a series of encounters that could only happen in a script. These gatherings are interspersed with reenactments of the moments before and after the attempted assassinations, including the final demise of several of the perpetrators. And all is done against the backdrop of a fairground shooting gallery and with music that Sondheim has created to echo tunes and genres in the all-American styles of the times each assassin lived. That there is a "Yankee Doodle," patriotic feel to many of the songs makes the musical and its content all the more unnerving and yet intriguing.

Any Sondheim musical is challenging for most actors, due to the packed lyrics that are often to be sung at a speed just short of lightning, with vocal ranges required from deepest to highest notes. While not all of the sixteen cast members assembled by Los Altos Stage Company are totally up to the task demanded musically by Sondheim, most in the end ably sell their spotlighted moments in ways for audience to take note of the quirky, disturbing villains as well as the presidents and/or bystanders they portray. The unevenness of vocal abilities is most noticed whenever the ensemble sings as a group, for the voices sometimes are less blended than desired, with the more powerful voices standing out too much over the others less heard.

Where this cast excels overall is in convincingly presenting through their acting abilities the strangeness, anger, loneliness, and often sheer insanity of this assembled group emerging from some of our national history's darkest moments. This is a musical where the spoken book plays as much importance as the songbook. Lee Ann Payne has done an admirable job in directing the cast to display in note-worthy manner the accents, personal traits, and disturbing psychological issues of each would-be assassin.

Vocally, Brian Palac is a standout in his role as Balladeer, a cowboy-like character who symbolizes the American dream and who serves as a mixture of narrator, meaning-maker, and provocateur. He sings several ballads about various assassins (Lincoln's Booth, McKinley's Czolgosz, and Garfield's Guiteau) that have at times a Gene Autry, home-on-the-range feel about them, employing whistling and a kind of aw-shucks manner in his easygoing voice, his big smiles, and his wide-open eyes supported by billowing cheeks. At other times, his sound is like that of a song-and-dance man in the style of James Cagney or other vaudevillians.

In each of the ballads, the Balladeer is joined by the assassin he sings of, including the embittered John Wilkes Booth (a dark and emotional Chase Campbell), the disillusioned, down-and-out Leon Czolgosz (Andy Cooperfauss with eyes popping in his madness and anger), and the totally and the egomaniac Charles Guiteau (a self-disillusioned Ken Boswell crazed to be Ambassador to France). Each of these three bring singing and acting styles that capture the demented, desperate desires each assassin brings to his fatal act. Ken Boswell's rendering of a poem Guiteau recited before his own hanging ("I Am Going to the Lordy") is particularly startling and memorable with its alternating slow, gospel dirge and brisk song full of optimism, all accompanied by his light-footed dance to the gallows.

Alea Selburn and Philomena Block are often like characters out of a 1970s sitcom as they portray would-be Gerald Ford assassins "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, respectively, who both fortunately totally bungled their attempts. On a park bench scene where they practice in cackling laughter gun shots aimed at a smiling Colonel Sanders on a chicken carton, the two share their crazed pasts and further howl in sounds straight from an insane asylum about their discovery of a shared association with Sharon Tate's murderer, Charlie Mansion.

Other bizarre moments abound that cause both the hilarity and creepiness factors to go off the scale. In barbershop quartet harmonies, assassins Czolgosz, Booth, Guiteau, and Moore sing "The Gun Song," "Your little finger can slow them down to a crawl, show them all, big and small, it took a little finger no time to change the world." At another point after singing "Unworthy of Your Love" about his infatuation with Jodie Foster, John Hinkley (Conner Smith) repeatedly misfires at other cast members who are popping out of corners from all directions in big-smile, Ronald Reagan masks in a carnival shoot-'em-up game, while he is mocked hearing famous Reagan quips about his failed assassination attempt.

As the man everyone in the audience has waited most of the production to see, Lee Harvey Oswald, Drew Jones gives a chilling performance in conjunction with a visit first by Booth and then by the entire entourage of other assassins—those before him and those who came after, some inspired by him. His small, thin persona in white t-shirt that would likely go unnoticed in a crowd is of course a giant monster. His reluctance in this musical's telling to pull the trigger on Kennedy versus on himself is spine-tingling. The post-shooting images on the projection screen of Jackie leaning over the President's body followed by the ensemble singing "Something Just Broke" as people remember where they were when they first heard of the assassination is probably the most dreaded, yet most eagerly anticipated part of the musical—a moment everyone knows is coming, even the first-time viewers. Particular kudos go to ChloĆ« Angst who brings one of the finer voices of the evening as one of the featured singers in that haunting number.

Particular strengths of this Los Altos Stage production come from the team supporting the action on stage. Ron Gasparinetti has created a staging that evokes the county fair atmosphere, while transforming easily into presidential assassination scenes aided by projections of authentic photographs. Carolyn A. Foot has accentuated the eerie, other-world aspects of the musical's devices through her outstanding lighting design that makes use of stage shadows and broken light shafts on the backdrop wall. Ken Kilen brings both out-of-doors and cityscapes into bear through his sound design. And the bizarre, sinister, and/or crazed natures of the assassins, as well as the time periods of both bystanders and presidents, are superbly denoted in the costumes by Y. Sharon Peng. Capping off the production team's noteworthy efforts is musical director Katie Coleman's fine seven-piece orchestra who do full justice to Sondheim's score.

For any theatre, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins is a monumental undertaking just because of its subject matter, much less the normal challenges of a Sondheim score and set of lyrics. In an election year as strange and (for many) as scary as this one where at least once a major candidate has given not-so-veiled encouragement to Second Amendment proponents to use their rights to show disagreement with his opponent, the subject matter of the musical is even more startling and unsettling. Los Altos Stage Company is to be commended for undertaking this venture. Even if there are a few places where the production falls a bit flat in some individuals' sung performances, the overall outing is quite successful and totally thought provoking. Certainly, even if no other spoken or sung line sticks in memory, the one I will remember is "Angry men don't write the rules, and guns don't right the wrongs."

Assassins continues through September 25, 2016, at Los Altos Stage Company, , 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos, CA. Tickets are available online at or Monday - Friday, 3 - 6 p.m. in person at the box office or by calling 650-941-0551.

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