ASSASSINS with Kokandy Productions, Theatre Review - Taking Aim at the American Dream

 

“All you have to do is move your little finger and you can change the world.” It is a very powerful and scary statement: How one gunshot – just one little pull on a trigger - can cause so much misery in the world and can literally change the course of history (let’s not forget that it was exactly 100 years ago this month that a political assassination sparked World War 1). Kokandy Productions excellent presentation of the musical Assassins is a disturbing and bleakly comic show that probes the dark side of the American Dream through subversive rewrites of various popular American musical styles as told by nine people who tried to, and in four cases actually did, kill the President of the United States.

 

Eric Lindahl as John Wilkes Booth leads the company of Kokandy Productions' ASSASSINS

 

Book writer John Weidman along with the genius musical theatre composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim took an unconventional approach to their controversial subject matter. They saw these assassins as victims of our society’s high expectations and false promises, and disciples of an entirely different American Dream - another national anthem. With staggering gun violence taking its toll through mass shootings across the country, the questions posed in Assassins are even more relevant and more important today than they were when it first opened on Broadway in 1990.

 

Assassins is a “concept musical” meaning there is no plot, but rather the show is more of a neo-vaudevillian collage of fragmented songs, dialogue scenes, and monologues that are connected thematically. As a result of having no linear structure Weidman’s book takes place in a surreal fairground. It’s an alternate universe where scenes jump back and forth through time, mixing people and events from different eras who have never met in real life. By doing so the creators are showing us how these assassinations have given people in our country a sense of carrying on a uniquely "American tradition" and in many ways this has helped play a part in these murders (and attempted murders).  No other country on earth has ever had the same amount of its own citizens trying to assassinate their own leaders as America has. Assassins examines not only each of the individual assassins and their motivations, but the character of our country as well and how we have gotten to where we are today.

 

 

Neala Baron as Sara Jane Moore and Greg Foster as Charles Guiteau

 

 

The most important thing to understand about Assassins is that this is not actually a show about political assassinations; rather the various assassins are used only as a metaphor for a larger concept at play here. What this show is really about is the assassination of the American Dream. That’s why the assassins literally chase the Balladeer (his character symbolizes good old fashion America) off stage and take control of the story for themselves. It also explains why the climax of this musical is the American public’s crushing reaction to the JFK assassination. It articulates the exact historical moment when the American Dream was not only shot, but when it died forever (and with that our country’s innocence and naivety). What’s even more daring about this is that Sondheim and Weidman lay most of the blame for this history of violence on the elusiveness and falsehoods contained in the American Dream itself - that the American Dream is a lie and it shares much of the responsibility for so many of these murders (and perhaps for gun violence in our culture in general).

 

A part of that blame stems from a common misunderstanding of the constitution. Our Declaration of Independence promises us all “the pursuit of happiness”, not actual happiness in and of itself. These assassins have all gravely misinterpreted that key distinction, which is emphasized further by having the characters tell us over and over and over again that “everybody’s got the right to be happy.” But when that happiness is not forthcoming, as they believed it was guaranteed to them, they feel abandoned, disenfranchised, and no longer bound to the rules of society. And in a country with all too easy access to deadly weapons, they find a gun and they take action.

 

 

The company of Kokandy Productions' ASSASSINS

 

Assassins is easily Sondheim’s most overtly political show to date, but it’s also one of his best. Sondheim’s score is grounded in the scenes of each time period. Nearly the entire score is written in various traditional American song forms such as Civil War ballads, folk songs, hoedowns, cakewalks, Sousa marches, showtunes, barbershop quartets, and even a 1970s pop ballad. The different American musical styles cleverly correspond to each of the different time periods, but they’re also intentionally written in slightly mangled ways (such as playing “Hail to the Chief” in 3/4 meter time instead of the standard 4/4) that slide the familiar sweet sounds we’re used to into dark dissonance. And it’s not only time periods that are smoothly worked in, but Sondheim manages to adjust the styles to fit characters as well. In “How I Saved Roosevelt”, the bystanders who claim to have saved the president sing to the tunes of Sousa marches, but later in the same song, the Italian immigrant Zangara sings an Italian tarantella while sitting in the electric chair. The one major exception to the different styles is the song “Another National Anthem”, which is the one song in the show in which the overall dramatic situation actually changes.

 

Additionally Weidman’s book scenes are extraordinarily well written. The dialogue is chalk full of character growth, subtext, allusions, and great moments of humor that are peppered throughout. Part of what makes Assassins work so well (and also what makes it so controversial), is that Weidman and Sondheim refuse to condone or judge these assassins for their actions. Instead they allow them to be who they are so we can understand them from a human perspective.

 

 

Patrick Byrnes as Leon Czolgosz, Jeff Meyer as the Proprietor, and Michael Potsic as John Hinckley, Jr.

 

 

Assassins includes a couple of outside characters that represent some important concepts for us. The first one is the Balladeer. He represents the American public and the American storytelling tradition (this is one reason why he has the more traditional folk songs). As the personification of storyteller he embodies an intentionally shallow and over-simplified view of history. And by infusing his stories with optimism he becomes our one moral compass in the show (until the assassins banish him). As the Balladeer, Cole Doman exudes the perfect all-too-American cheerful smile that he combines appropriately with a youthful theme park enthusiasm. These charming qualities by Mr. Doman provide us with a nice contrast to the dark intensity of the various assassins. What Mr. Doman is lacking though is a commanding presence. Part of that is due to his age. Mr. Doman is in his early 20s, but appears to be about 14 when compared to the rest of the cast. As a result we see the Balladeer more as an adorable puppy at times, rather than an assertive storyteller. Vocally Mr. Doman is one of the strongest singers in the cast. However, stylistically speaking, he tends to sing everything in a “musical theatre” type of manner, whereas the text makes it pretty clear that he should sound more like a folk singer to emphasize his storytelling role.

 

Jeff Meyer does a fine job as the slick Proprietor. The Proprietor is the other outsider in the show. He represents the complete other side of America than the Balladeer does. He shows us the darker side of our nation: a country run amok with gun violence and dissent. The Proprietor refuses to understand complicated issues and has a sick fascination with the assassins. He is the literal embodiment of the insanity of our modern world, a seductive psychopath in many ways. And as such I would  have preferred to see more of that menacing and lurid derangement coming from Mr. Meyer’s character a bit more, if only to further amplify  the contrasts between the Balladeer’s optimistic vision of America and the Proprietor’s darker one. Right now Mr. Meyer’s Proprietor is coming off a tad too normal than I would like. I do have to mention that this perception could also be due to costume designer Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s questionable wardrobe choices. Mr. Meyer’s Proprietor should have been dressed in a more unsettled looking manner (dirty clothes, messy hair, tattoos, etc.) which would have provided a sharper contrast to that of the moralistic clean-cut Balladeer (who was similarly costumed very poorly).

 

 

The company of Kokandy Productions' ASSASSINS

 

 

Director, Rachel Edwards Harvith, made a brave and ultimately brilliant decision to cut the entire ensemble from this production and have many of the assassins play “extras” in each other’s scenes instead. In Ms. Harvith's production the assassins never leave the stage for a moment. Throughout the show they sit on the outskirts of each scene - glaring in and listening intently with an almost morbid look of attraction at the events unfolding. The overall effect of this helps add another vivid surreal-like level to the dark tone of the show and it reinforces a major point in Assassins - that collectively these assassins are a potent American force, even if they are disillusioned and misguided individually. It also keeps the focus on our central theme rather than allowing us to get sidetracked. The only moment this all could have worked better is if Ms. Harvith suddenly made all the assassins disappear from the edges at the very top of Oswald’s big scene so that when all of the assassins suddenly reappear in Oswald’s world it would have been more dramatic.

 

Eric Lindahl skillfully plays one of our country’s most infamous assassins ever, John Wilkes Booth. Sondheim took a big risk by giving Booth passionate, deeply felt words of patriotism, set to stirring emotional music in "The Ballad of Booth". Mr. Lindahl did a great job making it a vocally stirring anthem for understanding from a confused and desperate Booth who feels betrayed over the way the country turned its back on him. Mr. Lindahl also shows us the human side of Booth by giving him a heartfelt compassion that reveals how he was just a misguided man who really believed in his cause and really loved his country. It may be hard to believe today but back in the 1800s Lincoln was considered a tyrant and was widely disliked in many quarters for his supposed “abuse of presidential powers” (accusations that are really not that much different from today’s heated political climate).

 

 

Nathan Gardner as Lee Harvey Oswald faces down the company

 

 

What made this scene really interesting, at least in hindsight, is that Ms. Harvith smartly cast Nathan Gardner (who will go on later to stiffly play Lee Harvey Oswald) as Booth’s accomplice David Herold. Later in the show, the same John Wilkes Booth will show up in the Texas Book Depository to convince Oswald to shoot Kennedy. This helps further establish the idea that the tradition of political assassinations which began with Booth is getting passed down time and time again – or as the Balladeer tells Booth, “…You left a legacy of butchery and treason… You paved the way for other madmen to make us pay.” Sadly we are still living with that legacy today in many ways.

 

Alex Heika makes a perfect Giuseppe Zangara (the man who attempted to shoot President Franklin Roosevelt). Mr. Heika looks the part and the actor gives Zangara a great amount of powerful frustration that makes him easier to understand. And on top of all of this Mr. Heika’s vocals are downright gorgeous. Greg Foster also did an impressive job portraying President James Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau. Mr. Foster is a sensational actor who added some humorous and genuinely touching layers to his character. Another superb performer in this production is the wonderful Neala Barron who grapples the complex role of the scatterbrained Sarah Jane Moore (one of two women who both tried unsuccessfully to assassinate President Gerald Ford). What makes Ms. Barron’s performance so great are the subtle nuances she gives her character; the active expressions she has and her physical gestures that say so much without having to say a word. By adding subtlety to her performance she’s able to bring out some fun humor in unexpected places.

 

 

Neala Baron as Sara Jane Moore and Allison Hendrix as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme

 

 

One of the most haunting songs in this production is the eerie, yet alluring 70s ballad “Unworthy of Your Love”, potently sung by the other failed assassin of President Ford Lynette Fromme (played by a mesmerizing Allison Hendrix) who is swooning over Charles Manson, along with President Ronald Regan’s attempted assassin John Hinckley (portrayed by an equally dynamic and truthful Michael Potsic) whose warped obsession for the young Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver has consumed his mind. This distorted “duet” was so beautifully done by these two performers that I literally got goose-bumps. Both Ms. Hendrix and Mr. Potsic magnificently filled this warped gorgeous number with a range of grounded emotions that swelled back and forth between angst, heartfelt love, and intense shame. It was by far one of the best musical numbers in the show.

 

Patrick Byrnes makes a very compelling Leon Czolgosz (the man who succeeded in assassinating President William McKinley at the World’s Fair in 1901). The progress of Czolgosz from exploited worker to assassin is one of the most interesting sequences in the show. His monologue about the insufferable working conditions in the factory where he works was filled with some great visuals by Mr. Byrnes who gives us a picture of a man that is filled with rage, but doesn’t know what to do about it. Two scenes later, he meets the famous anarchist Emma Goldman (another terrific performance by the multi-talented Neala Barron) who tells Czolgosz that he can strike down the ruling class. She leaves him with a pamphlet encouraging workers to rise up against oppressors. This sets his wheels turning. In the next scene we have a barbershop quartet, “The Gun Song”. Here Czolgosz articulates his contempt for the gun as an output “product” of a capitalist system and the many workers exploited and oppressed through its manufacturing. Czolgosz has made his mind to take action and in the next scene he walks up to President McKinley and shoots him. This magnificent three-scene sequence forms the centerpiece of the musical: a complete picture of how a man can go from desperation to rage to the act of killing someone in power and Mr. Byrnes conveyed it all with great delicacy. The lessons to be taught from Czolgosz’s story are as real today as they were over 114 years ago.

 

 

Neala Baron, Nathan Gardner, and Jason Richards in Kokandy Productions' ASSASSINS

 

 

By far the most outstanding knock-out performance in this entire production belongs to the extraordinary Jason Richards who flawlessly portrayed Richard Nixon’s would-be assassin Sam Byck. There is a fierce intensity, an extraordinary level of commitment, and an extreme focus that emanates from this incredibly talented actor. Mr. Richards clearly did his homework for this role. Not only is he electrifying to watch but, because of how relatable he makes his character, he is also thoroughly chilling as well. Byck has two fantastic monologues that establish several important ideas for us, but it is Mr. Richards wonderful handling of the latter monologue that really elevated the whole evening to another level entirely. In it Byck compares the American public to that of children and that they need protection and guidance from those in power. This leads to a sort-of distressing flashback for him to his own childhood; Byck’s father says he loves him, but his mother doesn’t. His mother tells him she loves him, but says his father doesn't. Issues of caring and protection are of tremendous importance to any child and here we see the psychological breakdown of an adult man who has misplaced that feeling of loss from childhood and has found a relatable loss in the same way the American public is feeling. It seems Byck has been grappling with these issues his whole life and for him that building anger finally spills forth to a point where assassination is the only answer. This moment not only gave us some fantastic insight into Byck’s psychology, but it also gave us a stunning moment of honest and painful vulnerability from Mr. Richards that was absolutely thrilling.

 

 

Greg Foster as Charles Guiteau

 

 

Zachary Gipson’s set consists of some eerie carnival fixtures and large wooden scaffolding which evokes the desolate groundwork of an abandoned rollercoaster ride. It gives the production a strangely cheerful grim feel to it all which serves to underscore both the ghastly and the unreal natures inherent in this show’s texture. The lighting by Brandon Wardell with his assistant Cassandra Green equally matched the shows tones by illuminating moments with darker colors and hidden shadows at times. This look of an off-set vision of reality sets the ideal tone for the fragmented style. And at the very end of the show the lights come up not on the cast members, but on us in the audience. Assassins is an inspection of us and our motives almost more than the actual assassins being studied on stage.

 

Bottom Line: Assassins is highly recommended. This is not a feel-good comfortable campy musical. It’s not supposed to be. Instead it’s an in-your-face revelation. A show about the real America, the one we are ashamed of, and feel complacent just ignoring. There are no easy answers here and no good and bad people, just characters explaining their side of the story so we can figure out the why and more importantly, how we can fix it. We are a country won with guns, a culture suffused with guns, and in many ways a nation cursed by guns as well. But if we are to ever overcome our country’s staggering gun violence, we first have to recognize our violent history so that we can understand what went wrong to begin with. This is not a message we necessarily want to hear, but comfortable complacency doesn’t effect change and that’s the point of this show. This musical accomplishes what the very best of any great art form should do- it makes you think.

 

Assassins – Kokandy Productions

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Runs through: July 20, 2014

Location: Theatre Wit - 1229 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60657

The theatre is located near the intersections of N Racine Ave and W Belmont Ave in the Lakeview district of Chicago. It is an easy 6 minute walk west from the CTA Belmont Station and can also be accessed by the # 77 Belmont Ave bus. Parking is available nearby, but space is limited. Use googlempas for directions.

Curtain Times: Wednesdays (July 9th and July 16th only), Thursdays, Fridays, at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM, Sundays at 3 PM

There will be no performance on Friday, July 4th

Tickets and Reservations: $38 and can be purchased online (see link above), in-person the day of the show, or by calling the Box Office at (773) 975-8150

Discounted Tickets: Groups of 10 or more save up to 30% on tickets. Special student group rates are available as well. Inquire with box office for details.

 

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by John Weidman, Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr., Directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith, Music Direction by Kory Danielson, Choreography by Mike Ford

Stage Management by JC Widman, Assistant Stage Management by India Van Camp,Co-Artistic Direction by John D. Glover,Set Design by Zachary Gipson, Technical Design by Mark McColley, Costume Design by Kate Setzer Kamphausen, Lighting Design by Brandon Wardell,Sound Design by Mikey Moran,Properties Design by Johnny Buranosky, Sound Engineering by Dustin Barclay, Electric Design by Claire Chrzan,Production Coordination by Jonathan Goldhwaite,Painting by Kassie Davis, Gabby Welsh, Mason Gipson

Orchestra: Kory Danielson (keyboard), Kyle McCullough (Guitar), Mike Matlock (Reed 2), Jered Montgomery (Trumpet), Zachary Moore (Bass), David Orlicz (Reed 1), Scott Simon (Percussion)

Cast includes: Nela Barron (Sarah Jane Moore/ Emma Goldman),  Patrick Byrnes (Leon Czolgosz), Cole Doman (Balladeer), Greg Foster (Charles Guiteau), Nathan Gardner (Lee Harvey Oswald/ David Herold), Alex Heika (Giuseppe Zangara), Allison Hendrix (Lynette Fromme/ Broke), Eric Lindahl (John Wilkes Booth), Jeff Meyer (Proprietor), Michael Potsic (John Hinckley), Jason Richards (Sam Byck),

Understudies: Tommy Bullington (Byck/Hinckley), James Lusk (Czolgosz/Booth), Dominic Rescingno (Proprietor/Guiteau), Sophia Shrand (Moore/Fromme), Andrew Sickel (Zangara/Balladeer/Oswald)

Photo Credits: Joshua Albanese Photography

Special thanks to my former director, theatre mentor, and friend Scott Miller for providing me with some fantastic insight on Assassins. His book, From Assassins to West Side Story is a must read for all those who perform, direct, or watch a lot of musical theatre.

 

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