Sunday, February 06, 2011


Lakeland does a very credible job with Sondheim's ASSASSINS

What do Samuel Byck, Guiseppe Zangara, John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Sara Jane Moore, Lynnette Fromme, John Hinkley, Leon Czolgosz, and Lee Harvey Oswald have in common? They are the main characters in Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS, a musical being performed by the Lakeland Civic Theatre. Why are they the subject of a musical drama? These are men and women who have attempted (successfully and not) to assassinate presidents of the United States.

The musical, which opens with the lyrics, "Everybody's got a right/To their dream” in this case, the dream of killing an American president, is not the stuff that musicals are usually made of. But this is not a traditional musical. First, it is a serious topic. There are laughs, many of them reactions of embarrassment, or outrage, of hearing ideas that to normal people make no sense. Secondly, as is true of Sondheim's works, very little of the music is memorable. In fact, though the show won numerous theatre awards, few of the songs are even recognizable to most people. When was the last time you hummed, Gun Song, How I Saved Roosevelt or The Ballad of Czolgosz? How about Unworthy of Your Love?

Sondheim conceived the musical while reading a play by Charles Gilbert who had submitted a script to a play writing contest about a fictional presidential assassin. Sondheim found the play itself problematic, but was fascinated by the material Gilbert had compiled of letters and anecdotes from actual people who plotted to kill US presidents. Those sources became the bones of ASSASSINS.

The musical opened Off-Broadway in 1990. In 2004 a Broadway production , which featured Neil Patrick Harris as The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, won five Tony Awards. Because of both its serious theme and lack of audience recognition, the musical is seldom staged.

The play reflects Sondheim's picture of “the decay and sickness lurking at the core of our society which causes fragile people to do desperate things.” For lost souls, Sondheim composes Another National Anthem, which reveals the nightmarish underside of the American dream.

The tale is extremely relevant in today's world. It concerns guns, broken promises, assumptions about entitlement, and the rethinking and restructuring of our values and behaviors, This is highlighted in the last scene when the assassins restate their motto, Everybody's Got the Right, and fire their guns at the audience.

As written, the opening scene takes place at a carnival shooting gallery where figures move by on a conveyor belt. One by one, a collection of misfits enter the stage, where the Proprietor of the game entices them to play, promising that their problems will be solved by taking shots at a President.

Director Martin Friedman, a Sondheim admirer, moves the setting onto a series of steps, looking much like the stairs in front of the Capitol Building, and uses the levels to create a series of tableaus that remind us of the paintings in the rotunda of that building. It works well.

With Friedman's clear direction, appropriate pacing, and some excellent voices and acting, attention does not wander.

The cast, which does not contain an equity member, is quite good. The acting develops some clear characterizations. Especially strong are Scott Esposito (John Wilkes Booth) and Brint Learned (Samuel Byck). Highlight scenes include Learned's soliloquy, as he stands dressed in a Santa Clause suit ranting about getting a plane to crash into the White House and kill Richard Nixon; the conversation between the eccentric Sara Jane Moore (portrayed well by Amiee Collier) and the Charles Manson inspired Lynette Squeaky Fromme (a nice performance by Neely Gevaart), who both made bumbling attempts to kill Gerald Ford; and the convincing of Lee Harvey Oswald (a believable Curt Arnold) to murder John F. Kennedy.

The vocal work, with the exception of Aaron Elersich (the Balladeer), was quite good.

Unless you are a history buff, get to the theatre early and read the excellent program notes concerning each of the assassins.

John Krols' musical direction, his excellent orchestra, and Trad Burns lighting all enhance the show.

Capsule judgement: Overall, Lakeland's ASSASSINS is a very good production, well worth seeing.