‘Assassins’ well done musical theater about murder
November 5, 2012
The quantity and quality of arts-related talent in Nevada County never ceases to amaze me. For a small area with a small population, we have more than our proportionate share of excellent musicians, visual artists and theater performers. Sierra Stages' current production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's 1990 musical "Assassins" provides a showcase and opportunity to shine for some of those fine local actors, singers and musicians, as well as a creative production staff.
Because I was not very familiar with this play, I was concerned as to whether I'd like it. The subject matter — assassinations or attempts on the lives of nine U.S. presidents — is an unconventional use of the musical genre, and it did cause me to feel slightly uncomfortable to listen to gleeful tunes about killing the president. However, I also laughed out loud at various lines and situations — the cleverness of the writing, staging, libretto and the very accessible music helped alleviate my squeamishness. Plus, I gained some understanding of the milieus in which these nine assassins lived and what might have motivated them to commit such a horrific act, allowing me to feel a modicum of empathy for the characters.
The cast consists of 16 talented actor/singers. Both ensemble and solo acting and singing are extremely strong. Especially noteworthy for his fluid movements, charisma and compelling presentation is Danny McCammon as a perfectly cast John Wilkes Booth look-alike, complete with curled hair and moustache. Paul Micsan's whining, explicative-laden interpretation of the crazy, angry, frightening Samuel Byck is stellar. Jed Dixon's self-aggrandizing Charles Guiteau ranges with ease from serious to over the top. A welcome newcomer to Nevada County theater, David Holmes does superb duty as both the well voiced Balladeer who tells the assassins' stories and as the dispirited Lee Harvey Oswald. The other assassins, characters and ensemble members each contribute splendidly to the comedic, musical and dramatic elements of the play.
Kudos are due to director Susan Mason, who is able to smoothly and convincingly move a large, well integrated cast on and off, around and behind a small stage, without losing continuity or making the space feel claustrophobic. Her staging kept my rapt attention for the entire two-hour show, performed without an intermission. And musical director Ken Getz's flowing interpretation of Sondheim's very accessible melodies — I'm not always a Sondheim fan, but I really enjoyed this music — played by him on keyboard along with three other exceptional musicians is the leavening needed for the serious subject matter. Adding some levity and quirkiness to the play is Pam Hodges' funhouse-like, multiuse set pieces, enhanced by Les Solomon's impressive lighting design.
"Assassins" is an amazing piece of theater — creative, singular, unsettling, humorous, musical, engrossing, educational and fun. When as well done as this current production, what more could anyone ask? Be sure not to miss this show, running at the Off Center Stage through Nov. 17.
Hindi Greenberg walked out of the theater, after seeing a show about people killing the president, humming one of the show tunes and feeling really good. Sondheim must have been onto a good idea when he wrote his music and lyrics.