Wednesday, October 1, 2014

ASSASSINS • The November Theater Company

There's a new theatre company on the scene folks, and the November Theater Company has chosen for its inaugural production, "Assassins", with a book by John Weidman and score by my hero, Stephen Sondheim. This bold musical that debuted off-Broadway in 1990, jumps historical timelines to parade before us a powerless group on the fringes, who have found the "American Dream" out of reach, so they claim what that dream has, for them, disclaimed, through successful and unsuccessful attempts on the life of a US President. And yes, it's a comedy, but it's a dark one.

Directed by Suki Peters, the opening number kicks off in a carnival setting with a gathered variety of malcontents, urged on by the carnival's ominous Proprietor (Jon Hey) to step right up to the shooting gallery and grab a prize, with the help of an assortment of guns he's more than happy to sell you. Whether it's Leon Czolgosz (Nick Kelly), a rage-filled steel worker with anarchist leanings who killed President McKinley, or would-be assassins like John Hinckley (Nate Cummings), who tried to take the life of President Ronald Reagan to garner the attention of Jodie Foster, these sad historical footnotes are presented as vignettes over the course of the play. Charlie Barron, wonderful as the Balladeer, serves as our narrator, introducing us to certain characters and questioning the motives of others from an affably smug distance, turning in a strong performance as a "special guest" near the end. John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln to avenge the South, wanders throughout the crowd like an "OG", or "OA" in this case, played with cocky charm by Michael Amoroso.

Nick Kelly (Leon Czolgosz), Patrick Kelly (Charles Guiteau),
Mitch Eagles (Guiseppe Zangara), Patrick Blindauer (Sam Byck),
Michael Amoroso (John Wilkes Booth), Jon Hey (Proprietor),
Nate Cummings (John Hinckley)
and Jennifer Theby-Quinn (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme).
Photo credit: Katie Puglisi
Strong performances also include the reliable Jennifer Theby-Quinn as hippy love-child Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a member of the infamous "Manson family" who tried to kill President Gerald Ford, teaming up with a very funny, pantsuit wearing Jessica Townes as Sara Jane Moore. There's also Mitch Eagles as Italian immigrant, Guiseppe Zangara who attempted to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt, Patrick Blindauer as the ranting, Santa Claus suit wearing Sam Byck who planned to fly a plane into the White House when Nixon was in office, and Patrick Kelly as pompous zealot, Charles Guiteau, who shot President James Garfield, with Nancy Nigh making a terrific appearance as a subtly staunch Emma Goldman.

Sondheim and Weidman don't display these successful and unsuccessful assassins before us to glorify or condemn them. They're presented as enemies of society, but undeniably products of it as well.

Charlie Barron (The Balladeer), Jon Hey (Proprietor)
and Patrick Kelly (Charles Guiteau).
Photo credit: Katie Puglisi
This is an ambitious choice for the new company, but not without its hiccups. The show contains a lot of humor, but it's also got a dark side, and while the comedy landed, the menacing undertones that give this show its edge didn't always come through. The cast sounds quite strong in several numbers like "The Gun Song", "Ballad of Guiteau" and the closing "Everybody's Got the Right", under Charlie Mueller's musical direction, but canned music is tricky. I imagine it's like hopping on a treadmill that's already running -- while you've got to get on at the right pace, you've also got to keep up, and some of the performances seemed hindered, not being allowed the flexibility to breathe or quicken their gaits, and the music didn't quite encompass the full scope of Sondheim's marvelous score. This, in a show where the music plays a huge part in the shaping of these historic characters, is unfortunate. Scenic designer Jason Townes provides a great two-tier set, well worn and dotted with faded red white and blue accents, including a nifty, underused set piece with past President's heads mounted on a wheel of fortune. Meredith LaBounty's costumes inform a wide range of characters from different time periods nicely, with lighting design by Russell Warning, sound design by Emily Hatcher, and projections by Bob Singleton.

Cast of November Theater Company's "Assassins"
Photo credit: Katie Puglisi
While this production fell a little short of its aim, it's still worth checking out if you've never seen it, and it'll be exciting to see what November Theater Company does next. It's playing until October 5th.


Book by John Weidman
Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Directed by Suki Peters
Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave.
through October 5 | tickets: $25
Performances Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Michael Amoroso (John Wilkes Booth), Charlie Barron (The Balladeer), Patrick Blindauer (Sam Byck), Will Bonfiglio (Ensemble), Nate Cummings (John Hinckley), Mitch Eagles (Guiseppe Zangara), Brittany Kohl Hester (Ensemble), Jon Hey (Proprietor), Nick Kelly (Leon Czolgosz), Patrick Kelly (Charles Guiteau), Dorothy Hendrick LaBounty (Ensemble), Nancy Nigh (Emma Goldman/Ensemble), Jennifer Theby-Quinn (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Jessica Townes (Sara Jane Moore), Kelvin Urday (Ensemble) and Mike Wells (Ensemble).

Scenic design by Jason Townes; costume design by Meredith LaBounty; sound design by Emily Hatcher; lighting deign by Russell Warning; projection design by Bob Singleton; musical direction by Charlie Mueller; stage manager, Emily Hatcher.

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