Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Assassins" Presented by F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company at Arsenal Center for the Arts Black Box

is one of Stephen Sondheim's most complex and difficult musicals to present - for a variety of reasons.  The subject matter - the assassinations of U.S. Presidents - is fraught with emotional content and baggage, and must be handled delicately.  Sondheim and book writer, John Weidman, handle the material with satire and a light-heartedness that audience members could find off-putting unless the director and cast are able to set a tone the walks a tightrope between irreverence of the one extreme and bathos on the other extreme.  F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company is to be commended for its current production, under the Direction of Joey Demita and the Musical Direction of Steven Bergman.  This production, set in the Black Box at the Arsenal Center for the Arts hits many right notes, and in only a few instances falls short of hitting the target, if I can borrow a metaphor from the theme of the show.

"Assassins" requires a strong ensemble cast with no room for weak links, since every assassin or would-be assassin has his or her moment in  the spotlight.  Allow me to highlight the moments that grabbed me, and then to offer some gentle suggestions for calibrating details to enable the actors to hit more bulls' eyes in this coming weekend's performances.

The key assassin in this story is John Wilkes Booth.  Like the other assassins, he transcends time.  The story is set in a kind of limbo that allows assassins from all of American history to interact with one another outside the constraints of chronological time.  Booth serves as a sort of Elder Statesmen to the assassins and would-be assassins.  He is played with distinction by Jim Petty.  He is one stage for much of the time, and anchors the narrative and the ensemble with a fine voice and stage presence. 

Ben Sharton plays John Hinckley, who is paired with Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, played by Katie Preisig.  Their duet, "Unworthy of Your Love," is carried out beautifully.  They each portray their characters believably.  

Sam Byck was a mad man obsessed with the possibility of killing Richard Nixon.  Byck is a tough character to portray, but Patrick Harris plays the role as well as I have seen.  His long and meandering monologues - spoken into a hand held recorder - run the gamut from folksy chatter aimed at Leonard Bernstein to psychotic ravings about Burger King's failure to deliver a satisfactory burger!  Harris is mesmerizing as Byck, and his performance is a tour de force and a highlight of this production.

Ian Flynn also stands out as Charles J. Guiteau, who aspires to be Ambassador to France, and kills the President Garfield when his ambitions are thwarted.  His song, "Ballad of Guiteau,"sung with the Balladeer (Jared Walsh) is demanding both musically and dramatically.  It was presented very convincingly.  Walsh also doubles as Lee Harvey Oswald, and his performance in both roles is solid.

The other assassins and would-be assassins do credible work in rounding out the tale that Weidman and Sondheim aspire to tell: Leon Czolgosz (Ben Gold), Guiseppe Zangara (Ben Oehlkers), Sara Jane Moore (Catherine Lee Christie), and Proprietor (Kelton Washington).

Here are some suggestions for minor tweaking that could improve the overall effect of the performance this coming weekend:
  • The balance between the fine orchestra and the actors was not always right, with the band sometimes overwhelming solo voices, especially when the Proprietor opens the show with "Everybody's Got the Right."  Standing just above the orchestra, his golden trumpet of a voice sounded a bit too muted to project to the back of the house;
  • Walsh could differentiate a bit more between the physicality of the Balladeer and Oswald
  • Preisig is almost too beautiful and put together to be a credible "Squeaky."  Just a bit of frizz in the hair or mad gleam in the eye would help.
  • Christie needs to coordinate the firing of her gun with the off-stage sound effects.  The mismatch was distracting.  "Attention must be paid"!
Overall, I enjoyed the show.  The cast told a good story, made the audience think and feel, and entertained.

Well done.   I encourage you to check out the final weekend of this fascinating and enigmatic show.



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July 12 - July 20
Arsenal Center for the Performing Arts Black Box
321 Arsenal Street
Watertown, Massachusetts

About Assassins: 

ASSASSINS daringly examines success, failure, and the drive for power and celebrity in American society. This dark, alluring carnival is not a celebration of the Assassins' actions, but a surreal peek into their minds. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman bend the rules of time and space, taking us on a roller coaster ride in which assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact, and inspire each other all in the name of the American Dream.

Bold, original, and alarmingly funny, ASSASSINS is perhaps the most controversial musical ever written

PROPRIETER - Kelton Washington
SARA JANE MOORE - Catherine Lee Christie
SAM BYCK - Patrick Harris
ENSEMBLE - Vanessa Theoharis, Amy Oldenquist, Mike Fay, Ryan Solero and Sam Greene

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