By Joanne Engelhardt
Horrible topic. Terrible timing.
Yet when Hillbarn Theatre’s production of Assassins opened last weekend, it was, in a word, spellbinding. Imagine watching the incredibly talented Andre Amarotico kill President Abraham Lincoln a few days after the news of the seven farm workers shot in Half Moon Bay.
Amarotico’s acting skills are so good that the Foster City theater’s audience couldn’t help getting drawn in. The almost-sold-out opening night audience found a way to put aside recent events for two hours and lay witness to watching a fine cast of actors portray characters who kill – or shoot — several presidents and others they have grudges against.
Assassins first opened on Broadway in 2009. The incomparable Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, and handpicked John Weidman to write the book. The show got mixed reviews and closed after 73 performances. Over the years it’s had numerous revivals both off- and on Broadway, and is now frequently performed by theatre companies around the world.
Curiously, Assassins is a musical – nearly the entire cast sings about their plans to kill, or how they killed or tried to kill. Not exactly fodder for a musical, though it works here.
There’s a nimble “balladeer” (beautifully acted by Keith Plato) who wanders in and out of the multi-tiered set, and into the audience, swinging around poles – all while singing “Everybody Has a Right to be Happy.”
That’s what makes Assassins so strangely seductive. The actors smile, sing upbeat songs – all while plotting to kill someone.
..Curiously, Assassins is a musical…
One of the best scenes is between Sara Jane Moore (a devastating, yet drop-dead funny portrayal by Hayley Lovgren) and Squeaky Fromme (equally well acted by Brigitte Losey). These two sit on the steps and discuss killing famous people while smoking weed and chomping on KFC, potato chips and sodas.
Moore is distraught because she can’t find her dog – and she can’t remember where her children are. But that doesn’t keep her from having a good ol’ time with Fromme while stuffing her mouth with fast food.
Fromme tells her that she’s a follower of Charles Manson who is the Son of God. Sara Jane looks at her as if she’s insane and asks: “Did he tell you he was the Son of God?” “Absolutely!” Squeaky answers, “….and I’ve slept with him!”
Nick Kendrick, so good as Jerry Lee Lewis in productions of Million Dollar Quartet, wears his hair long and flat in front here as he plays John Hinkley, whose obsession with Jodie Foster caused him to attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
He and Losey sing the duet “Unworthy of Your Love,” as their characters cry out for their obsessions (Foster and Manson).
Nearly everyone in the cast does a fine job with their roles. Kudos to Benjamin Ball as Leon Czolgosz, an American laborer and anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901 (and was later electrocuted for his crime); and Ted Zoldan as Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James Garfield and was later hanged. But Julio Chavez doesn’t seem quite up to playing Lee Harvey Oswald, which is unfortunate because the murder of President John Kennedy is likely the one that some audience members still vividly remember.
Director Joshua Marx deserves high marks for keeping the musical moving at a fast pace, assisted by Leslie Waggoner who not only helped with directing but was also the production’s choreographer. Scenic designer Christopher Fitzer did an amazing job with creating the versatile wooden set. It had American flags, bunting and very old, tattered flags everywhere. The multi-level set enables cast members to dart in and out and, at times, all stand in their own spaces.
A fine orchestra of six musicians, lead by music director and keyboardist Jad Bernardo made sure their music didn’t masque the voices and kept a solid tempo.
Marx says in the program that it’s his hope Assassins will help audiences think about the threads that connect all of the play’s events – and how these characters got to the point of doing what they did.
Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Based on / Written by||Concept by Charles Gilbert, Jr.
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman
|Directed by||Joshua Marx|
|Producing Company||Hillbarn Theatre|
|Production Dates||Thru Feb 12th|
|Production Address||1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404|
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review PICK?||Yes!|