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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Knightbridge Theatre's excellent revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins has an eerie relevance, especially the sequence about Samuel Byck who hijacked a plane to crash into the White House, but it probably would not be any more popular on Broadway today than it was in its debut during the Gulf War. It's Sondheim at his darkest and most devilish. The Sondheim of Passion and Sweeney Todd here he scours the flip side of the American Dream. His four Presidential assassins and five failed assassins sardonically chorus "we all have a right to be happy", as they re-enact their real life crimes and interact with each other in a surreal sub-conscious limbo.
John Weidman's book finds humor in the horror and dances over the usual motives: John Wilkes Booth, the Southerner striking a last blow for The Civil War; anarchist Leon Czolgosz who shot McKinley; Charles Guiteau, whose disappointments and delusions turned into revenge on a president who symbolized the world; Guiseppe Zangara and Sara Jane Moore, who took pot shots at FDR and Gerald Ford, for much the same reason; Lee Harvey Oswald, in this production depicted as a loser/Communist/stooge; Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley, Jr., who killed for love of Charles Manson and Jodie Foster, respectively.
As The Balladeer, Nathan Bouldin's splendid voice narrates and links the stories. Sometimes the assassins interact or gang together to voice their mutual desire to be remembered, to outlast Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame. The cast is rounded out by a well-chosen chorus of extras who play everyone from Emma Goldman and Gerald Ford to the citizens who sing "Something Just Broke", each one remembering, as everyone did then, exactly where they were when President Kennedy was shot. It's the most touching moment in a show that depends for its theatricality on shocks and jolts of humor.
Director Karesa McElheny has utilized the Knightsbridge Theatre's tiny stage with remarkable skill and draws nuanced performances from her capable cast. Voices range in quality, headed by Nathan Bouldin's Balladeer. Beau Puckett shows us why John Wilkes Booth was the most charming and charismatic actor of his day. Sharonlee Mclean locates the looniness in Sara Jane Moore and Don Schlossman the con man suaveness of Guiteau. Jay Willick gets to the tortured heart of Leon Czolgosz and Thia Stephan's shrill voice drives Squeaky Fromme's obsessive quality. The Oswald sequence is the weakest of the play, perhaps because we know him best, though August Vivirito holds his own.
Weidman's dialogue can be a little lengthy, particularly in the Oswald-Booth scene, and this isn't Sondheim's most memorabled score. There are no hit parade numbers here. It's chamber music -- snaky, sneaky, like a chorus of Hallowe'eners.But it's a fascinating piece, worth doing and well done, that reeks of its own sad truth. With musicals that focus on groups from Renters to residents of Urinetown or Oklahoma, who but Sondheim would serve up a musical on this queer warped sub-culture worming its way into the apple of The American Dream. The writer even dares to quote Arthur Miller's seminal line: "Attention must be paid!", giving it to that charismatic actor John Wilkes Booth.
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