The opening show of Blackfriars Theatre's 2016-17 season features guns, presidents, and a national anthem -- and a premise that began more than 100 years ago in another dark theater. It was Ford's Theatre, 1865. On April 14 -- Good Friday -- a well-known actor named John Wilkes Booth became the first successful presidential assassin; and Abraham Lincoln became the first assassinated US president.
Some historical rumors hint that the first presidential assassination was the result of a string of bad theatrical reviews, and Booth's bitterness, combined with a hunger for fame, led to the deed. More reliable sources say it was Booth's loyalty to the South, and he'd been plotting the act.
In the 1980's, composer Stephen Sondheim read a play by Charles Gilbert Jr. that fascinated him so much that he asked Gilbert if he could develop it into a musical. The resulting show was "Assassins," with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by John Weidman, which opened Off-Broadway in 1990. (A 2004 Broadway revival later won five Tony Awards.)
As the opener for Artistic Director Danny Hoskins' second season at Blackfriars, "Assassins" is a bold choice in many ways. The dark humor has political undertones, and it contains content that might make some audiences uncomfortable. (When Sondheim penned "Assassins" in the late 80's, gun control wasn't part of the national dialogue.) Theatre is meant to push people out of their comfort zones, and this show may do some pushing.
The set design by Eric Williamson is immersive: while the original set of "Assassins" was a carnival-themed game show featuring assassins from throughout history, co-directors Hoskins and Janine Mercandetti have established a circus setting, complete with twinkling lights and face-in-hole cutouts outside the theater entrance. Inside, actors sell tickets for games like "pop the balloon with the dart," while others sell circus peanuts (and real peanuts) for $2 from concession boxes hanging around their necks. It's a fun atmosphere, and one that encourages not only face-to-face engagement, but also social media engagement (the production has a hashtag, #AssassinsBT).
For this version of the show, Hoskins and Mercandetti sought performers who were also musicians: everyone, at some point, appears to play an instrument (though not necessarily well), and the ensemble acts as the orchestra. It makes for a fast-paced, high-energy show -- a good thing, considering the one hour and 45 minute musical doesn't include an intermission.
While it's a strong ensemble overall, several actors stand out. Colin D. Pazik plays the "leader" of the assassins, John Wilkes Booth. While he has performed in non-musical roles at Blackfriars (most recently as Hal in "Proof"), Pazik has the chops for singing roles and proves himself a truly versatile actor who shouldn't be underestimated. Blackfriars newcomer Rachel Walsh claims the biggest laughs of the night for her consistently hilarious portrayal of ex-FBI agent Sara Jane Moore, who attempted (and failed) to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. Abby Adair Reinhard plays the role of Moore's partner-in-attempted-crime and Manson groupie Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme. Reinhard has a magnetizing stage presence throughout the show (particularly during the "Unworthy of Your Love" duet).
Assistant musical director Matthew Wegman (who doesn't often have the chance to perform an in-depth role, according to his program bio), plays the part of the Balladeer, a sort of narrator with a heavy lyrical responsibility. Wegman excels; carrying the narrative with strong, clear vocals and expressive acting instincts. His songs don't last long enough, somehow. John Winter, who plays President McKinley's assassin Leon Czolgosz, is another versatile actor not to be underestimated; he's held some excellent roles around the city (most recently in "The Presstitutes" at MuCCC), and shows his range in this show with both an excellent Polish accent and a fine singing voice.
Steve Cena, who portrays attempted President Nixon assassin Samuel Byck, has two tough sells with his role: lengthy monologues and eating real food while talking -- but Cena triumphs, making his scenes some of the most compelling in the entire production. (A particularly great moment is the tape recording Byck makes for Leonard Bernstein, one of Sondheim's closest friends and collaborators.)
The costumes (and music) are matched to each character's era, creating quite a bit of work for costumer Alyssa Sullivan. But she manages to match each impressively, which serves as a helpful timeline throughout the show. To the credit of props master John Engel, the guns used in the show don't resemble real weapons. They're more like the wooden toys used in childish games of Cowboys and Indians. When a gun "goes off" in the show, a drum is banged. So while the gun-heavy material could touch a nerve for some audience members, the stories are clearly presented with fictional aspects and a lot of creative license.
There really isn't a moral to the story. And it doesn't need one. "Assassins" is part history lesson, part black comedy, and wholly enjoyable. It's a strong start to year two for Hoskins, and (hopefully) sets a standard for the coming season.