By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
“Assassins” which opens Signature Theatre’s 30th Season is also the 30th Stephen Sondheim production which the Arlington, Virginia-based Signature Theatre has presented. It does them proud! Eric Schaeffer, director extraordinaire, has pulled another rabbit out of his hat which entertains and enlightens us, even as we cringe a bit in horror at the actual events portrayed onstage. So, here’s the deal, if you have had any angst about seeing this show, I’m telling you it will be blown away (well, maybe) by this often breezy, mordantly funny, even hilarious, but sometimes agonizingly dark examination of the nine attempts to assassinate our Presidents. It’s still about assassinating the President, but the satirical tone enables you to let down your defenses and truly laugh at some of the shenanigans these folks pulled.
The nine would-be assassins presented here are only “based on” the actual accounts of the individuals whose twisted minds led them to have these murderous impulses. The characters in this show are egged on by each other as well as by the sleazy, sinister proprietor of this side show/carnival/shooting gallery, Kurt Boehm, and by Sam Ludwig playing the slightly crazed “keep’em laughing” balladeer and general master of ceremonies, as well as later on in the show, Lee Harvey Oswald.
The remainder of this absolutely top-notch group of actors depicts a rogues gallery of characters; I’m listing them all because in this show everyone has a huge part in telling the story and I can’t really single out the “top five or six”. The list of actors includes Christopher Bloch (Samuel Byck), Evan Casey (John Hinkley), Vincent Kempski (John Wilkes Booth), Jimmy Mavrikes (President James Garfield/President Gerald Ford), Ian McEuen (Giuseppe Zangara), Christopher Mueller (David Herold/Ensemble), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Sara Jane Moore), Nova Y. Payton (Ensemble), Lawrence Redmond (Leon Czolgosz), Christopher Michael Richardson (James Blaine/Ensemble), Maria Rizzo (Emma Goldman/Ensemble), Bobby Smith (Charles Guiteau), Jack St. Pierre (Billy), Rachel Zampelli (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme), Declan Fennell (Billy understudy), plus three swings: Harrison Smith, Kylie Clare Smith, and Dylan Toms.
The brilliant set designer, James Kronzer, costume designer, Kathleen Geldard, wig designers, Alison Samantha Johnson and Austin Blake Conlee plus lighting designer, Chris Lee, through apparent simplicity have created a versatile and otherworldly place for these deranged souls in which the audience can appreciate and get to know them, one by one in mostly chronological order, with the exception of Lee Harvey Oswald who is examined last. Each misguided soul desires a kind of fame that nothing else but killing a President can give them (they think). The book by the venerable John Weidman, who has written the books for many Sondheim musicals, is extraordinarily detailed when highlighting the interesting, sometimes funny details, and the motivations of each of the cast of characters.
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) for this show, unlike for any of his others that I know of, employs a musically fascinating and varied scenario of carnival music, vaudeville show music, minstrel cake walks, barbershop harmony, gospel music, American political tunes and even beautiful love songs to take you on a musically entertaining and surprisingly in-depth existential ride through the history of our country. John Kalbfleisch (music direction), has assembled a group of eight musicians who sound like a full orchestra! What the lush sound adds to this production is impossible for me to describe adequately, but it’s fabulous to hear live and the musicians are arranged behind and above the singers, so no one is overpowered by them.
Performance and Ticket Information:
“Assassins” runs now through September 29, 2019 and is approximately 1 hour 45 minutes without intermission. Signature Theatre is located at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206
For Tickets, visit SigTheatre.org or call 703-820-9771