Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2008
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Mill City Productions has a lovely new home in Western Gateway Heritage State Park. Unfortunately that is also the bad news for its first production there, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.
The new space is very big and very “live” acoustically. Everything echoes and reverberates in there – everything – from the smallest audience throat clearing to the most loudly sung note. Which means that sound waves just sort of crash one upon the next, exactly like ocean waves on the shores, so that they meld into a long cacophony from which individual noises become indistinguishable. So much for Sondheim’s lyrics. And so much for any hope the unschooled audience member has of figuring out what’s going on, because “Assassins” does not have a linear plot and it already assumes a greater knowledge of American political history than most people possess.
Mill City has only been in this space for six weeks, so they have not had time, and undoubtedly don’t immediately have access to the money they will need to turn this big old railroad siding into an intimate and flexible theatre. But still, there were some obvious things director Michael Grogan could have done to mitigate the sound problems, first and foremost moving the two-piece band (the hard working and talented conductor and pianist Michael Roy and percussionist Bobby Marshall) from in between the performers and the audience to behind the performers. As it is, the instrumental music hits you first, then the singers, and since most of the performers are not trained singers the music is both closer and louder than the vocals.
Stephen Sondheim was in his sixties and well established as the reigning King of the American Musical Theatre when he and John Weidman wrote Assassins in the late 1980’s. Even with his name behind it, the show was not given a Broadway production but instead had its world premiere off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons were it was scheduled for a two month run. Assassins wasn’t presented on Broadway until 2004, when it won five Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical.
The show is a disjointed series of songs by Sondheim (very good) and scenes by James Weidman (generally weak) about the seven men and two women who assassinated or attempted to assassinate an American president. While I am a big fan of this piece, mainly for Sondheim’s brilliant choice to match the musical style of each assassin’s song to the historical time period, it is far from perfect.
I would bet that most Americans today believe that only two presidents were assassinated – Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy – and might be hard pressed to name both the assassins. Well, here you meet them all: John Wilkes Booth (Jeremy Kerr), Leon Czolgosz (Chad Therrien), Charles Guiteau (Joshua Bishoff), Giuseppe Zangara (Michael Hitchcock), Samuel Byck (Conor Moroney), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Elizabeth Urban), Sarah Jane Moore (Brooke Mead), John Hinckley, Jr. (Trevor Foehl), and, eventually, Lee Harvey Oswald (Tim Mangun).
The biggest problem with the script itself is its presentation of Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. While there are many people still living who remember it vividly, I think the national wound, which was still relatively fresh in 1991, has begun to scab over. There is serious doubt in many minds that Oswald really was the assassin, and he was assassinated himself. Many other madmen and events have come along since to steal the American sense of invulnerability and dewy-eyed innocence. Weidman tries to tiptoe around the problems that existed at the time the piece was written by waiting until the end of the evening to bring Oswald on (all of the other assassins appear throughout) and then making him the center of one of the show’s longest uninterrupted stretches of dialogue in which the others convince a reluctant Oswald to go through with the deed in a very unconvincing scene. Oswald does not have a musical number and Grogan has chosen to omit the ensemble number, “Something Just Broke,” which Sondheim wrote for the 1992 London production.
The script takes many liberties with historical truth – Sam Byck did protest outside the White House once wearing a Santa Claus suit but he wasn’t wearing it the day he tried to hijack the 747 – but none so glaring as the conflation of the stories of Fromme and Moore, both of whom attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford in 1975, but who never met and never acted in tandem. Weidman presents these women as complete fools – the Lucy and Ethel of Assassins, if you will – and while their scenes provide welcome comic relief they are also strikingly sexist and degrading.
So you have an amateur production of a problematic Sondheim musical (and no one ever said Sondheim was easy to sing) presented in an acoustically deadly space. All of these factors conspire to ruin an earnest and credible attempt by Grogan and the Mill City team.
Under the circumstances the men’s voices fare better than the women’s, and unfortunately Sarah Rae Brown as the Proprietor and Marissa Carlson as the Balladeer are nearly impossible to hear. Since both of these roles serve as narrators, much is lost.
Urban and Mead are more audible, and also turn in entertaining performances as Fromme and Moore. Mead is a particular stand-out with a fully realized characterization of the ditsy, gun-toting Moore. Urban gets Fromme’s obsession with Charlie Manson, but not the flower child wispiness that went along with it. And she is anything but squeaky.
Kerr turns in a manic performance as Booth in his early solo, despite being seriously off key in several spots, but he is merely annoying in the Oswald scene in Act II. It helps that Kerr looks like Booth. Since most people don’t really know who these assassins were, let alone what they looked like, a strong physical resemblance is not a casting requirement here. Trot an actor out and tell me he is Leon Czolgosz (its pronounced Sholl-gosh, by the way) and I’ll believe you. But many old codgers like me know exactly what John Hinckley, Jr., looked like in 1981, and he didn’t look a thing like Trevor Foehl. A wig and a better fitting costume would have helped a bit, and a larger, clearer photograph of Jodie Foster. I attended the show with my 19-year-old son, and he had no idea who Hinckley was or what prompted him to attempt to kill Reagan, and as we left he asked me who was in the photo Foehl was clutching – and we sat in the third row. That shot of Foster in Taxi Driver is iconic, and would be easily recognizable if enlarged.
Bishoff, a trained singer, and Moroney, who is just a ball of fire, were the easiest to hear and consequently the most entertaining of the men. The Ballad of Giteau, which incorporates some of Giteau's own writing as lyrics, is one of favorite numbers in this show, and although Bishoff was paired with the inaudible Carlson, the overall effect was powerful. While Urban slightly missed the boat in her attempt to match the historical period of the movement with the music, seeing Bishoff dancing cheerfully on the scaffold with the noose around his neck and his head covered was chilling.
I see a lot of theatre and there is nothing more fun than watching a talented amateur having a ball being on stage, which was exactly the energy Moroney exuded. His Sam Byck had a passion and sense of humor that was infectious and engaging.
Therrien tried hard but was hampered by the fact that neither he nor Carlson could project, and since Czolgosz and his 1901 assassination of William McKinley have faded from living memory I doubt that many in the audience knew what the heck was going on. The same with Hitchcock, who turned in a passionate performance as the tormented Zangara, but few people are now aware that an attempt was made on F.D.R.’s life in 1933 by a dyspeptic Italian immigrant.
I got a kick out of 5th grader Cameron Lapine as a member of the chorus and as Moore’s son Billy. Again, here was a talented amateur having a ball. And I have to say that Lapine spoke right up – I could hear every line. The expression on his face before his final exit in his scene with Mead and Urban was priceless. I notice that his bio states he loves to read – that is an excellent preparation for a life of enjoyment on and off stage.
There were missed opportunities for lighting and sound effects that can be attributed to the group’s lack of familiarity with the space, which was not built to be a theatre. Pleased as I am that Mill City has found a permanent home, I sat there wishing I was seeing the show at Main Street Stage or Drury or even at St. John’s Parish House, where I would have had the hope of hearing something and where sound and light equipment is permanently installed and thoroughly tested.
Mill City Productions will present Assassins at their new home in Building 4 at Western Gateway Heritage State Park in North Adams, MA. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 24-26, at 8 p.m. Matinees will be held at 2 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, April 26 and 27. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. There are several, very loud, gunshots during the course of the action. Due to language and adult situations, this play is not recommended for children under 13 years of age. Tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for seniors and students. For reservations, call 413-663-3211 or visit www.millcityproductions.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008