“Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine; not the sun, but maybe one of its beams…”

For the record, I do not like musicals. I like drama.

I saw Assassins at the Wilmington Drama League, directed by Chris Turner, and I only had to eat some of that statement. I really did not want to do this, but I’m afraid I’ve seen a production of a Sondheim musical that compels me to tell you all about it, why it was electrifying and you should go see it.

Essentially, the whole conceit of Assassins is that the American experience is a game; striving to succeed, get a piece of the pie, realize your dreams. However, you and I (and, fortunately, Sondheim) all know that the rules of the game don’t affect everyone the same way, and a lot of people don’t succeed without cheating. A lot of people who try to play by the rules will get swept by the wayside. So the central issue of Assassins is this: The American experience is a game. You pay to play and shoot to win.

Traditionally, Assassins is presented in a carnival shooting gallery, and Sondheim’s music builds that world, suggesting American innocence tempered with hucksterism. Turner chose to set it in a reality TV show instead, lining the stage with video screens, using cameras onstage to strengthen the Ensemble’s relationship to the audience; everyone wants to be on TV, everyone wants to be in the spotlight, as they fight with each other to make sure everyone knows they saw or heard or was part of a little slice of history.

Sondheim includes actual and attempted presidential assassins in his tale; some win, some lose, but all of them yearn for something greater, to have the place in history that John Wilkes Booth took. Time, fortunately, is something Sondheim is able to play with masterfully; the plot is driven by dramatic intention, not by a ticking clock. Luckily this means we get to see John Hinkley and Squeaky Fromme sing a chilling, precise and pure duet to unrequited love that the world would be smaller without. The mechanism of the game is transformed by its players so that the two game proponents become assassins as well.

Turner’s choices in this show were very strong. The Balladeer and the Proprietor became a Cameraman and a Game Show Host. The Balladeer is Sondheim’s stand-in for the audience’s feelings throughout the show. In this production’s case, he shows the audience where to look, although not how to feel. He would simply sing us the story and let us draw our own conclusions. The Game Show Host led the contestants, stone-faced, through their trials, leading them straight to their chosen targets, and letting them succeed or fail. Because it’s not his job to care, it’s hard for the audience to care about him, and often times he disappeared in these moments because the focus was on the assassin themselves, but a wrenching resolution walked into a book depository. It led up to a heart-breaking conclusion that left the audience shaking but singing on the way out the door, and really, for what more could you ask?

All of the actors provided strong, memorable, heart-breaking but focused performances. Most notable were the two women who played Squeaky Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore. Both had elegant voices and delivered quirky performances that sparkled and provided an excellent commentary on how un-fun it is to be an American woman sometimes. Tina Sheing and Miriam Pultro delivered the sense of these ladies as cut from the same cloth. Pultro’s Squeaky was a spring chicken, full of burning desire to eat the world alive, and Sheing’s Moore a prize mother hen who would take the world under her wing, if only she could keep it all together. Their joyful and determined target practice with a KFC bucket made me so happy.

In fact, every assassin in this show had a moment that should be set up as a case study of How To Make Excellent Theater out of American Pain and Ambivalence. Mike Ware’s Samuel Byck was funny, sad and right as he chugged his cans of Bud and rambled into a tape recorder, begging Leonard Bernstein to write more love songs and challenging Nixon’s failed presidency; Jonathan Dalecki’s Czogloz was brutal in his mechanically fierce descriptions of the factory worker’s life and tender as spring in his gentlemanly worship of Emma Goldman. Mike Renn’s Giuseppe Zangara had a very real fire in his belly that suggested Kurt Cobain and the current healthcare debates, along with a profound voice. Brian Turner’s nearly-silent, restrained but desperate to connect John Hinckley was chilling simply in the way he moved across the stage, his discomfort in his own skin; he was truly the guy you would not sit next to on the subway. Then his duet with Pultro, “Unworthy of Your Love,” made his chase of a flickering Reagan mask and voice so much more painful.

This plays for one more weekend at Wilmington Drama League so get down there.

Ok. I have said it. I saw a Sondheim musical and I enjoyed it, I even drove to see it IN THE RAIN, but only because it was this one, this production, this company, this director, these actors, this time. I will now go back to hating all musicals. Keep your Sondheim away from me.

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~ by manifenestration on September 13, 2008.

One Response to ““Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine; not the sun, but maybe one of its beams…””

  1. You sure you don’t want to come see RENT, paying off at the end of this month (January 29, 2010) and also directed by Chris Turner!!!

    I am new to the whole theatre world myself (no real knowledge on musicals) and here is my journey from auditions to my current state…

    Hopefully you enjoy the blog and the show (wink,wink)

    http://diggadoo.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/re-cap/

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