Tuesday, October 07, 2014

New Rep Theatre Continues Its 30th Season and Hits The Mark With Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins"

The starting pistol has been fired for the second production of the 30th season of the New Rep Theatre.  And the gun did not misfire.  It would be hard to imagine a more perfect production or more flawless interpretation of Stephen Sondheim's iconic and controversial musical "Assassins."

The Cast of "Assassins"

Presented by
New Rep Theatre

As the audience enters the theater, we are met by a perfect and evocative multi-level set - designed by Kamilla Kurmanbekova.  Faded and dusky stripes of red and white line the floor of the stage and bleed up into a field of blue with stars that appear to have been pierced by bullets.  In this play, these colors do run!  The band is positioned just off stage - upstage right.  Under the steady Musical Direction of Matthew Stern, who conducts from the keyboard, they provide the ideal backdrop for the telling of this story that takes us on a journey that blends time and space.  The Lighting by Jedidiah Roe, Sound by Michael Policare, Choreography by Judith Chaffee and Costumes by Chelsea Kerl create the kind of visual and auditory ecosystem that allows the superb cast to help us to try to enter the minds of a bevy of assassins and would-be assassins who were hell bent on changing political destinies and writing - or scribbling - their names in the history books.

Director Jim Petosa has assembled a cast that features many stand-out performances and no weak links.  He has set them up for success by giving them the freedom to speak and sing and move in ways that beckon us to try to understand what itches they were trying to scratch when they "moved their little finger" and pulled the trigger.  This is very much an ensemble piece.  The characters - gathered from the far corners of several centuries and geographies - convene in one place and time to tell their stories.

Peter S. Adams is Samuel Byck, who planned to fly a 747 into Nixon's White House.   His mania is palpable in his soliloquy in which we see him spooling up to his planned act of violence that never came to fruition.  He is frighteningly believable as this Santa Claus outfit bedecked misfit.

Harrison Bryan is Giuseppe Zangara, the Italian immigrant who attempted to shoot FDR, but who instead killed Chicago Mayor Cermak in Miami.  His spasms of stomach pain are so realistic that I may have been tempted to dial 911 had I not already obediently turned off my cell phone.

McCaela Donovan gives yet another memorable performance, this time as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, girlfriend of Charles Manson and would-be assassin of Gerald Ford.  Her interactions with Sara Jane Moore are highlights of this show, as is her duet with John Hinckley, Jr., "Unworthy of Your Love."

Benjamin Evett is the Proprietor of the shooting gallery where he entices the assassins to assemble to receive their weapons.  He plays the role in a very low key way, appropriately not drawing focus from the more kinetic characters.  He shines in the songs "Everybody's Got The Right," and "Another National Anthem."

Evan Gambardella is rock solid in the dual roles of Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald.  He shows impressive vocal and emotional range and commands the stage during much of the action.

Jesse Garlick plays multiple ensemble roles with great agility and also serves as Dance Captain.

Paula Langton is Sara Jane Moore, the klutzy housewife who also plans to assassinate Gerald Ford.  It is difficult to play this role without creating a cartoonish caricature, but Ms. Langton walks that tightrope without a misstep.  Together with fellow female assassin-in-waiting "Squeaky" Fromme, Langton and Donovan raise dizziness and ditziness to an art form.

The Would-Be Femmes Fatales
McCaela Donovan as "Squeaky" Fromme
Paula Langton as Sara Jane Moore
Presented by
New Rep Theatre

Mark Linhan is John Wilkes Booth, the Elder Statesman among the assembled assassins.  His vocal prowess and stage presence make him an imposing figure, His "Ballad of Booth," sung with the Balladeer, sets the stage for the action to follow.

Kevin Patrick Martin is Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American steelworker, whose frustrations at the plight of his fellow laborers and working men led him to Buffalo to kill William McKinley.  Mr. Martin possesses a particularly impressive singing voice that he uses to great effect, particularly in the "Gun Song" along with Booth, Guiteau and Moore.

Brad Daniel Peloquin is Charles Guiteau, delusional would-be Ambassador to France.  When James Garfield and his advisors told Guiteau to stop pestering them with his request, he lay in waiting at a train station, and shot Garfield twice, inflicting wounds that would lead to the death of the President eleven weeks later.   Mr. Peloquin was impressive as the foppish jack-of-all-trades, and the "Ballad of Guiteau," sung magnificently with the Balladeer, is another highlight of this production.

Casey Tucker is the anarchist Emma Goldman and several additional ensemble roles.  The song, "Something Just Broke" allows her talent to shine.

Patrick Varner is John Hinckley, Jr. whose monomania in trying to win the love of actress Jodie Foster impels him toward an encounter with Ronald Reagan.  Mr. Varner is heartrending in his duet with Ms. Donovan, "Unworthy of Your Love."  This song is emblematic of the depth of this show.  On the one hand, it demonstrates just how unhinged these human beings are who plan to shoot Presidents. On the other hand, it opens windows of vulnerability that allow us to see them less as monsters and more as deeply flawed human beings.

For many audience members, "Assassins" is an acquired taste.  At first, we are uncomfortable.  Is it permissible to laugh at and with men and women with murder in their hearts?  As he did in "Sweeney Todd," Mr. Sondheim has crafted songs that invite us to consider the full spectrum of who these violence-prone people may be, and to explore possible explanations - if not excuses - for their actions.  Whether or not you have already acquired a taste for this musical, I encourage you to buy a ticket and allow the wonders of the creative geniuses at work here to take aim at your mind and your heart.

"Assassins" will be performed at The Arsenal Center for the Arts through October 26.

New Rep Website



L-R: Peter S. Adams, Harrison Bryan, McCaela Donovan, Evan Gambardella,
Patrick Varner, Paula Langton, Brad Daniel Peloquin,
Kevin Patrick Martin, and Mark Linehan.
Presented by
New Rep Theatre

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