By Jocelyn McMahon
MOST ACTORS KNOW an unspoken rule of musical theater: never bring Sondheim to an audition. Not because it’s cliché, outdated, boring or overdone, but because it’s hard. Performing Sondheim is always an endeavor; rhythmic rotations, forever changing time signatures, lyrical tongue twisters of poetic genius that explain precise details about the plot—no easy feat.
But throw in the delicate subject matter that Assassins addresses, including murder, politics and guns, with a multi-faceted script by John Weidman that is layered with detailed historic facts, crude humor and eight different time periods to convey in non-sequential order—now that’s ambitious.
Mountain Community Theater took a risk selecting Assassins as part of their 2018 season. A musical that examines the motives and lives of nine individuals that either assassinated or attempted to assassinate former presidents of the United States of America is not gentle subject matter. The violent acts of our history that have been committed in the name of the American dream—all with guns mind you—are examined in a sort of morose, yet darkly comical way that leave you unsure if you should laugh or cry.
As far as sets, costumes and props, I was blown away by the level of detail and budget put into this show. Ticket sales must be paying off and a big thank-you to season subscribers; I almost didn’t recognize Mountain Community Theater as the vaudevillian patriotic carnival that it was transformed into. The two projectors framing the proscenium arch was a great original touch, as was the Avenue Q-esque puppet representing President Ford (but also looked like another balding orange puppet I’ve seen recently).
Walking in I was somewhat reluctant to see yet another male-driven show, so I appreciate the gender-bending choice to cast a female to play the balladeer who (spoiler alert) later transforms into Lee Harvey Oswald in the climactic moment of the show. The performance of the multi-talented Sarah Kauffman Michael as the string playing balladeer and the infamous assassin of JFK was phenomenal.
Brittney Mignano, was spectacular as Sara Jane Moore, the fast talking, spastic housewife who can never seem to find anything in her purse, including her handgun. Mignano lights up the stage and grabs your attention from the minute she enters. She is obviously an experienced actor with exceeding comedic abilities.
As for musical numbers, all were pretty solid, weaving in and out of the dialogue and story-line. Musical direction by Max Bennett-Parker was spot-on which was unsurprising considering his experience with Cabrillo Stage.
“Unworthy of Your Love,” particularly, stood out as one of the prettier songs in the show. A love ballad, it opens with John Hinckley Jr—played by Shane Johnson—the attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan with a deep obsession for Jodie Foster. He begins strumming slowly on guitar and opens with a pure rich subdued voice that immediately shifts our perception from lunatic to loverboy. As the song picks up, he is joined by April Bennet as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme who is declaring her love for the notorious Charles Manson. The tear-jerking love duet is so delicate and beautiful that for a moment one can easily get lost and forget what they are in fact singing about: plans to assassinate two different presidents in order to demonstrate their affection.
We see a man dissolving into psychosis and paranoia at the top of Act 1, with the monologue of Samuel Byck, the attempted assassin of Nixon, played by Benjamin Canant who delivers his character effortlessly. Driving his car dressed in a dirty Santa Claus costume, the audience sees a man who’s been on the short end of the stick time and time again, or at least believes so. He addresses Nixon directly in another one of his many recorded tapes explaining his doubt in American politics. “Who’s lying?”, he finally yells face-first at the audience, and suddenly we get chilling goosebumps. Canant gets right to your heart managing to gain sympathy and understanding for a man who is in fact planning to crash a 747 into the White House.
Though the level of skill was above average and consistent for all the leads, there were variations in the ensemble. Some were amazing; shout out to Katia Burke, obviously a well-trained dancer whose brief solo in “Something Just Broke” certainly broke my heart. Others missed cues and couldn’t seem to keep up with the choreography. Though Assassins is far from a dance driven show, some of the performances in the ensemble/dance numbers were a bit distracting.
One very clever scene happens in Act 1 with Giuseppe Zangara, the Italian immigrant and attempted murderer of FDR played by David Jackson. Facing death by the electric chair and still singing, the absurdity and ridiculousness of it all takes over, and the audience cannot help but laugh. Jackson suddenly silences the audience; “You think it’s funny?” he says in an extremely authentic Italian accent. Suddenly, I could no longer laugh. I was forced to examine the reality of the situation.
By selecting Assassins MCT risked walk-outs and backlash, potentially losing some long-time patrons who might be offended, but I see this risk as a progression; if a piece makes an audience uncomfortable and forces us to question ourselves and society, then it has done its job. In his director’s note Davis Banta writes, “The brilliance of this show is the seductive way it crafts an atmosphere of circus sideshow lunacy out of intense subject matter.” That’s precisely what it does.
A disturbing yet beautiful piece, Assassins examines the flaws of our country and the kind of celebrity-glorification given to assassins time and time again. Overall, I think this show is relevant in the fact that it makes us question our country: who we are, what are our motives, and is the American Dream really all it’s cut out to be? And if it isn’t, what happens next?
Jocelyn McMahon is an actor, journalist and educator
Photo by Davis Banta