As we all know, one of the Golden rules is never to discuss religion or politics at dinner or parties. But this autumn it seems Dallas didn’t get the memo.
In August, the mega Broadway smash musical "The Book of Mormon" finally made its debut in Dallas at the Winspear to sold-out enthusiastic crowds. The hilarious satirical musical skewers the Mormon faith in particular and established religion as a whole with a "they can’t do that on stage, can they?" sucker punch.
Monday night, Theatre3 opened its new production of Stephen Sondheim’s "Assassins," an audacious political ("I shouldn’t be laughing at this, should I?) musical about the assassins (and would-be assassins) of American Presidents. Theatre3’s "Assassins" is intentionally but disturbingly funny. It is also thought provoking, disturbing and shoot-the-works spectacular featuring a first rate cast and charismatic direction from Bruce Richard Coleman.
"Assassins" is set surreally in a murderous (State Fair?) Midway shooting gallery with a large, light-bulb marquee encouraging assassins "Shoot To Kill." This very dark show is pieced together as vignettes that are presented non-chronologically and highly theatrical often showing assassins from different time periods interacting with each other. "Assassins" perversely allow the assassins to explain their motivations to assassinate the President. And while billed as a musical, entire scenes are performed without singing.
The show begins with the midway-barker Proprietor selling guns to all of the assassins. Visually this opening scene is reminiscent of Mrs. Lovett’s first scene in Sondheim’s equally dark musical "Sweeney Todd." Jason Kane plays the Proprietor, and it is his dangerously dynamic performance that immediately sets the tone for the show. This is Kane’s big number, and he kills it. Kane’s Proprietor appears stalking through the show and throughout the arena. This very simple staging makes the Proprietor an incredibly intimidating figure.
Also stalking the stage throughout the show is Christopher J. Deaton as the Balladeer who serves as the narrator for "Assassins." The Balladeer not only introduces the assassins and spins their stories into motion, but he also weaves their motivations together highlighting that their inability to reach their American dream is the catalyst that transformed them into assassins. Deaton delivers a solid performance singing his numbers in a sad, stoic and folksy style.
Gregory Lush plays John Wilkes Booth, who is referred to as the pioneer of American assassins and is as close to the lead character that this ensemble show allows. While Lush gets his own scene and song ("The Ballad of Booth,") he appears throughout the show usually encouraging the assassins-to-be to take action to grab their gun and their shot at the American Dream.
Lush’s portrayal of John Wilkes Booth is just a finger licking, moustache curling Dick Dastardly twirl away from camp. That Lush’s performance flirts but falls on the dark side of the villainous/camp tightrope, makes his menacing magnificent performance all the more impressive.
Theatre3’s embarrassment-of-riches cast includes ruggedly handsome Bryan Lewis Leon as Leon Czolgosz the assassin of President McKinley in 1901. Lewis disappears into Czolgosz, an angry, disillusioned son of immigrants and low wage factory worker who believed his American Dream was squashed by the wealthy who exploited the poor for their gain.
Although as lethal as Czolgosz, Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James Garfield in 1881, is played by Paul Taylor as a happy-go-lucky, Charlie Chaplin-like pogo stick whose abrupt frequent appearances throughout the show mirror Guitea’s bizarre real life activities. Guiteau, after a series of failures in education and religion, attempted a start-up newspaper, became a lawyer and petitioned President Garfield to be posted as Ambassador to France.
Aaron White eerily channels John Hinckley whose 1981 assignation of President Ronald Reagan failed. And as often happens in Sondheim shows, he gives the most beautiful melody "Unworthy of Your Love" during the show’s darkest acts. In a chilling side-note Hinckley largely grew up in Dallas and even attended Highland Park High School.
Daron Cockerell and Marisa Diotalevi who play President Gerald Fords unsuccessful assassins "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore respectively are written and performed broadly, providing some much needed comic relief even if the comedy is macabre. Just as she did several seasons ago in Theatre3’s "The Drowsy Chaperone" Moore nearly steals the show with bulletproof comic timing.
The last third of the show is centered on Lee Harvey Oswald who is quietly underplayed by Sam Swanson with finesse. Oswald is shown on the 6th floor of the Texas Depository Book building, unaware that he is going to encounter John Wilkes Booth and the chorus of American assassins and would-be assassins. They all vainly urge Oswald to kill the President so that their names would resurface and become more than a mere footnote in American history.
In presenting Oswald and the other characters in this manner, Sondheim wittily presents a theatrical conspiracy that joins dozens of other conspiracies surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy here in Dallas in 1963.
With or without the grisly songs and lyrics, when peeled away "Assassins" provide some gut-punching themes that still resonate. The ghastly amount of guns shown in the musical is frightening. One song in Act One is even named "The Gun Song" and seems as if it s written specifically as an anthem for the NRA.
"Assassins" contains a running theme about "The American Dream." It demonstrates that the dream is different for every individual as is the capacity to obtain it. Some of the characters are drawn to fame and attention while others are motivated by their attempt to shine the light on social injustice and the upper, middle and lower class castes of American wealth. Sound familiar?
"Assassins" also explores the mournful sadness of a country that was glued to their television sets one weekend in November and can recite the exact details of where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. Sound familiar?
Ensemble player Suzanna Fox wrings sadness through each syllable as she chillingly sings "Something Just Broke." And yet the show boasts the resilience of our country as we mourn. And then we realize not much has changed. And then we move on.
There’s a unique symmetry happening within and outside of the theater world this moment in time here in Dallas. Across town Dallas Theater Center is performing "A Raisin in the Sun" that explores, less violently, the same strange search for the American Dream as the characters in "Assassins."
It’s been only a handful of weeks from when the country honored the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s "I have a dream" speech. And Theater3 deliberately placed "Assassins" in their lineup this year as the country and Dallas particularly inch toward the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK in Dealy Plaza.
No, "Assassins" is not perfect. The 6th floor window set that sits midstage before the show should wait until the Oswald scenes where it would have a greater impact, especially since there is a fragmented seal of the President displayed beneath it. And occasionally some of the cast members stumble over Sondheim’s signature explosion of lyrics.
Theatre3’s "Assassins" is a uniquely cringe-worthy and comical, yet deeply thoughtful, meditative and haunting work of art.