By Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
Stephen Sondheim has never been big on plot. His plotless musical “Company” is about a group of middle and upper class friends singing about their lives. “Assassins,” with a book by John Weidman, takes that idea one step further and has America’s most notorious killers sing about their lives and deaths. The show could easily be called, “Killer Company.”
“Assassins” starts out with eight infamous and some lesser-known assassins, Leon Czolgosz (Darrel Whitney), John Hinckley, Jr. (Corwin Stoddard), Charles Guiteau (Chad Elder), Giuseppe Zangara (Mark McConnell), Samuel Byck (Rob James), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Kassie Doherty), Sara Jane Moore (Stephanie Ottey), and John Wilkes Booth (Stanley Graham). Let’s call them the Assassin Eight (say it out loud). The Assassin Eight are joined by the Proprietor (Nathan Hough) and the Balladeer (Connor Bahr) and various townspeople (the ensemble). These madmen and women are later joined by Lee Harvey Oswald to become the Assassin Nine.
Speaking of asinine…each killer explains why they want to murder their respective president. Guiteau murdered James A. Garfield because the president didn’t hire him. Hinckley shot at Ronald Reagan in an attempt to win the love of Jodie Foster (ain’t gonna happen, buddy). Squeaky Fromme attempted to kill Gerald Ford to impress Charles Manson. There true life reasons are ludicrious.
Sondheim and Weidman throw the assassins into a blender and mix repeatedly. Characters from the Civil War chat to characters from the 60s, 70s and 80s. These lunatics co-mingle at a county fair. You’ll never find such a more wretched hive of scum and villainy as you will in “Assassins.”
The Proprietor and the Balladeer attempt to hold everything together. It doesn’t really gel until Oswald (Bahr) shows up, and we get the barest semblance of a plot. A murder plot. “Assassins” finally delivers an emotional punch with the song, “Something just broke,” set to a montage of actual newspaper headlines from the various assassinations and an extended clip of the Zapruder film. It’s a powerful, moving moment that brings the show to a close and wraps it up in a neat, little bow.
There are some killer performances in “Assassins.” Graham has a masterful command of the stage as John Wilkes Booth. Doherty is far from squeaky when she sings. She knocks them dead with her vocals. Elder chews the scenery with every step on stage. The actors even looked like their murderous counterparts. It’s an amazing feat for a group of community players marvelously cast by Director Nick Mitchell.
By the way, the show led to some serious disscussions and a desire to learn more about these ne’er-do-wells. It’s an interesting and entertaining way to get a history lesson. With shows like “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” and “Hamilton” its all the rage. Don’t take the children, if you’re sensitive to foul language.
Speaking of foul language…there are humorous soliloquies by Rob James as Byck. He’s dressed in a dirty Santa suit and espouses some serious crazy. His monologues are some of the best moments of the show. They are also the easiest to understand because the orchestra wasn’t playing when he was talking.
Therein lies the rub. The orchestra overpowered the performers. Music Director Michael Meketa led a group consisting of two keyboardists (Meketa manned first keyboard), a guitar, bass, drums, reeds, trumpets and a trombone. They all played beautifully, but they played over the singing. Even though the performers were equipped with microphone headsets, they were rendered nearly inaudible by the big, boisterous sound of the band. Whenever a mic cut out, which, admittedly, did not happen very often, the show went all Marcel Marceau. It may be a hazard of the venue but it was very frustrating.
Mitchell would have a hit on his hands if he could tone down the sound on the band and pump up the volume on the actors. As we all know, every assassin needs a good hit.
(“Assassins” plays through May 22 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Avenue, Carnegie, PA 15106, for more information, click here).