“Everybody’s got the right to be ‘different’; even though at times they go to extremes. Aim for what you want a lot—everybody gets a shot!”
They all had their reasons; they all had their own special ‘rationalizations’…they all tried to kill “The Commander-In-Chief” of the United States Of America—and four even managed to succeed. Now, their individual stories serve as the basis for “Assassins” the latest musical being presented by “One More Productions” at the historic “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California! One of the most surreal, provocative, and ground-breaking musicals in current times, featuring a score by the legendary Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, this one-act historical “revusical” intricately explores the lives of nine people who have assassinated (or tried to assassinate) the President of the United States. From John Wilkes-Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and John Hinckley Jr., all of their motivations were different—or were they?!
As the audience take their seats, through the sound of repeated thunder can be heard the dissonant (even ghostly) strains of “Hail To The Chief”, and right from the get-go you know you’re in for something different. “One More Productions” has reimagined the setting from the original Broadway version, which had all of the goings-on playing out inside a wraithlike carnival shooting gallery. This time it all takes place in old western-style saloon on a dark and stormy night (which might very well be purgatory.) There, bending the rules of time and space, one by one individuals—both familiar, vaguely familiar, and completely unknown eventually find their way in out of the storm. “Everybody’s Got A Right” sung by this notorious band of brothers (and sisters,) opens the show, as the bar’s “Proprietor”, played by Daniel Berlin, offers each various weaponry (“If you keep your goal in sight you can rise to any height” they rejoice.) As each one’s personal sagas are revealed, we are taken on a macabre journey in which assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact and actually inspire one another to carry out harrowingly violent acts in the name of our so-called (and celebrity-obsessed) ‘American Dream’.
Weidman’s script is part history lesson, part political satire and part black comedy-drama that’s rife with powerful moments, bravely venturing into some pretty dark areas (–but doing so brilliantly.) In fact, this is easily one of the best, most impactful libretto’s written for a musical in recent memory! It even envisions a conversation between Lee Harvey Oswald (whose own story, not coincidentally, is saved for last,) and ‘the spirit’ of John Wilkes-Booth, (serving as his personal “Mephistopheles”,) while he lies in wait inside the book depository. Introducing Oswald to the others and the impact his impending carnage will have on future generations, Lee, who up until this time has served as the on-stage voice of reason and social conscience, is told “Without you we’re freaks…With you, we’re a force of history!” So too, while arguably not exactly Sondheim’s most iconic work, he nonetheless has infused the lyrics with some pretty powerful and insidiously clever phrases. For example, early on in the buoyant “Ballad Of Booth” (which first introduces us to the man who brought about the sixteenth President’s untimely demise,) “the Balladeer”, who turns out to be none other than “Lee Harvey Oswald”, exhorts: “Damn you Lincoln and Damn the Day! You threw the ‘U’ out of U.S.A.!” In due time, when it’s Booth’s turn to recount Oswald’s experiences in “November 22nd, 1963”, he leads the group in explaining how they all felt like “expatriates in their own country”, further joining them to urge Oswald on to his most desperate and sinister deed. Then, immediately following, the entire cast assembles on stage for “Something Just Broke”, which looks at what the ordinary citizenry feel upon hearing the shocking news that the President’s been shot.
Beth Hansen’s direction wisely favors taking a lighter touch—allowing the actors and their words to take center stage over any larger, bolder exploits or intricately staged numbers, and this is especially fitting as A) this is, by its very conception, a more ‘intimate’ type of musical (–and particularly well-suited for “The Gem’s” more intimately-sized auditorium,) and B) just the presence of firearms (which they all possess and brandish liberally throughout the proceedings) is a bold enough action in itself! Sean Smalls’ antique-looking bar-room set provides an excellent backdrop for all the events to play out against, and his inspired lighting design also plays a vital role as well, subtly suggesting mood or, in frequent places, serving as a kind of colorful punctuation to the thoughts being expressed and sung (Case-in-point: at the conclusion of “Another National Anthem”—sung by all the assassins—when the stage is bathed in jolting blood-red!)
The hard-working cast of fifteen each do a laudable job with some often challenging material. As John Wilkes-Booth (whom the others acclaim as “A Pioneer”,) Alex Bodrero is appropriately egotistical and full of bravado, explaining the unsettlingly feasible reasoning behind his bloodshed. Booth, in his words, was out to “Kill the man who killed my country”, afterward rationalizing “Let them cry ‘dirty traitor’; they will understand it later!” In many ways this is a dream-role for any actor and Bodrero more than lives up to it. Brandon Taylor Jones also does an impressive job as “Lee Harvey Oswald”, serving as our guide throughout much of the proceedings, as he narrates the unique and unusual back-stories of several of his compatriots (Booth, Czolgosz and Guiteau) until taking center-stage with his own grisly tale. Adriana Sanchez too, reveals a whole new and refreshing side to her talents, offering up plenty of laughs as the befuddled former ‘F.B.I. Narc’, “Sara Jane Moore”. Among numerous terrifically memorable scenes is hers with Gretchen Dawson as the free-spirited “Manson Family” member “Squeaky” Fromme, wherein the two ‘compare notes’ over a bucket of chicken and a joint. Sanchez’s “Moore” nicely counters the more ‘intense’ characters like Evan Guido’s tightly-wound immigrant-turned-killer, “Leon Czolgosz” who’s at the center of “The Ballad Of Czolgosz (At The Pan-American Exposition In Buffalo)”. Performed as a rousing square-dance, this is the single full-out “Choreographed” number the piece contains, as one-by-one the chorus take center stage to ‘shake the hand’ of the President, while Leon glowers in the background with his gun concealed by a handkerchief (…that is, until it’s ‘his’ turn.)
Danny Diaz likewise scores as the equally hot-headed “Giuseppe Zangara”—the Italian bricklayer who made an attempt on the life of then “President-elect” Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His infamy is detailed in “How I Saved Roosevelt (Lucky I Was There”)” which also provides a great opportunity for the five-person ensemble to get involved, as each relates their description of Zangara’s undertaking to the headline-hungry media even as Zangara himself is being strapped into the electric chair. Shortly thereafter, Dawson returns to totally captivate with her part in “Unworthy Of Your Love” opposite Tad Fujioka as “John Hinckley, Jr.”, during which he reflects on his obsessive devotion to Actress Jody Foster, while she similarly sings the praises of Charles Manson. Together, their duet makes for a genuinely delightful highlight of the show! As for Fujioka, he does an A-Plus job chillingly capturing the essence of Ronald Reagan’s would-be killer, painting him as a withdrawn, stammering loner whose only source of passion lies in his attempts to gain the attention of his imagined ‘paramour’ (whom he misguidedly believes is in need of rescuing like the character she played in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”.)
In a rare move, this time around the cast includes “One More Productions’” Co-Founder, Damien Lorton (whose contribution is usually in the Director’s chair,) playing the role of “James A. Garfield’s” executioner, “Charles Guiteau”. Lorton infuses cultured eccentric Guiteau with the proper amount of pomp and self-importance, (while still making it clear he’s “mad as a hatter”!) His number, “The Ballad Of Guiteau” is staged as a lively ‘minstrel’ song, which not only showcases Lorton’s accomplished song-and-dance abilities, it effectively lifts the spirits of the show’s second-half. Subsequently, Guiteau has another uproarious interlude as he ‘instructs’ “Sara Jane Moore” in the proper technique to shoot a gun (Ironically, it was her very lack of familiarity with the pistol she used in her attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life that essentially saved him.) Next up we’re introduced to Chris Harper as “Samuel Byck”. His monologue, as he ‘records’ a tape to former Sondheim collaborator, Leonard Bernstein (one of several famous personages whom Byck actually tried to correspond with) eerily references one of the composer’s earlier works—“Westside Story”, and perhaps provides some insight as to Sondheim’s motivations behind taking on this particular subject-matter. Byck, we learn, is after Richard Nixon and in 1974, he tried to hijack a DC-9 with the intention of flying it into the White House to achieve his goal. His monologue here is one of the more acridly potent orations in this or any musical production. Also delivering noteworthy support is John Gillies, furnishing a few needed chuckles as a suitably clumsy “Gerald Ford”, and Fiona Wynder, who presents a slightly more ‘prim’ take on the notorious anarchist and rabble-rouser, “Emma Goldman” than has been seen of late, whom Leon Czolgosz is initially in love with. Although she gently informs him that she cannot return his affections, she can give him something more fundamental: a dream to live for. “They make us servants,” she tells him, “we don’t make servants of each other!” (That this ultimately leads to his slaying William McKinley is entirely inconsequential!)
While admittedly not always an easy show to watch, it is regardless, always thought-provoking–time and again proving far more significant than your average musical; “Assassins” is for mature, intelligent and discerning audiences who require a bit more from their time at the theatre than the standard “Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a ‘Happy Face’.” “The Gem Theatre” is located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove, CA. ; after opening on Thursday, October 9th, performances will run Thursdays through Sundays until Sunday, November 2nd. Show-times are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. Tickets may be obtained either by phone at (714) 741-9550, ext. 225, or on-line by logging onto: www.onemoreproductions.com. (Discounts for Seniors and Children 12 and under are available, while special “Student Rush” tickets can also be obtained for Thursday and Friday evening performances.)
Production stills by Lisa Scarsi, Courtesy of Dan Pittman at Pittman P.R. (www.pittmanpr.com) and “One More Productions”. Special Thanks To Dan Pittman, Damien Lorton and to the Cast & Crew of “One More Productions’ ” “Assassins” for making this story possible.