“Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine…Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”
So say the lyrics in the opening and closing song in the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins, being given a splendid revival and re-thinking by director Dan Fishbach and Red Blanket Productions at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles. These merry, uplifting lyrics are sung by a varied group of presidential assassins, some successful, some not. It’s the conceit of composer Sondheim and librettist John Weidman that not only can everyone dream of growing up to be president of the USA, but conversely some can grow up hoping to be noticed and remembered for killing a president. The majority may wave flags and sing The National Anthem, but others feel they are entitled to sing their version–
“Another National Anthem, For those who never win, For the suckers, for the pikers, For the ones who might have been…”
Assassins is certainly one of the darkest musicals ever created but also one of the most stirring. The audience can’t help but eventually come to see and maybe even sympathize with the skewed viewpoint of this band of losers. They range from the vainglorious actor, John Wilkes Booth (Travis Rhett Wilson), who wished the North to suffer as much as his beloved South suffered from the Civil War he feels Abraham Lincoln caused to happen, to the love-struck college student John Hinckley (Zach Lutsky), whose misguided crush on young actress Jodie Foster of Taxi Driver fame led him to shoot President Reagan in 1981. Weidman’s book gives us some background on the diverse cast of characters, from the comic hijinks of Sarah Jane Moore (Janna Cardia) and Charles Guiteau (Jeff Alan-Lee) to the anguish of immigrants Leon Czolgosz (Adam Hunter Howard) and Giuseppe Zangara (Jason Peter Kennedy) and the manic ravings of Sam Byck (David Gallic) in laugh-out-loud comedy and nearly distressing tragedy. Cardia delivers a comic tour-de-force performance. Weidman’s scene set on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository on November 22, 1963 is nearly unwatchable as many of us experienced the Kennedy assassination in our lifetime. Fifty plus years later and we still remember where we were, what we were doing when we first heard the news and knew in our hearts “Something Just Broke” as Mr. Sondheim so eloquently phrases it. Sean Benedict delivers a striking performance as the befuddled Lee Harvey Oswald whose deed brings his predecessors out of the forgotten pages of history and makes the future possible for those who followed him on the national stage.
Director Fishbach and his talented cast get every nuance out of these characters. Not all the voices are of musical theatre caliber but they nail their characters, they deliver the emotional impact required. The strongest voice in the cast belongs to the Balladeer (Nick Tubbs) and he carries all of his songs with aplomb. “The Ballad of Booth,” which he does with Wilson, is the show’s highpoint. I have always felt this number, the show’s second, is the pivotal point. If it works, the entire show will work. They nailed it here. One of Sondheim’s most beautiful love ballads is featured in the score, the haunting “Unworthy of Your Love.” It is sung by the besotted Hinckley to his dream girl Jodie and the equally delusional if even more besotted Squeaky Fromme (Claire Adams) to her Charlie (as in Manson).
Alan-Lee has a grand old time cakewalking his way up and down the scaffold during “The Ballad of Guiteau.” Choreographer Lili Fuller’s spirited steps were on display there and in “The Ballad of Czolgosz” with ends with the shooting of President McKinley. Music director and keyboard player Anthony Lucca led the four-piece off stage band which did a stellar job with the score. Philip G. Allen’s sound design was perfection as was Will Adashek’s lighting. Cole Cuomo essayed the role of the Proprietor and acted as a stage manager, helping the cast move the few set pieces around Alex Kolmanovsky’s set and handing out props as well as helping with some costume changes devised by Stephanie Beth Petagno.
The Pico Playhouse, 10508 W Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles. Ends Sept. 27. http://www.assassinsmusicalla.com