By Lonnie the Theater Lady
Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins opens in a carnival like shooting gallery where The Proprietor (Zack Spurlock) gently and convincingly persuades several misfits to play the shooting game. He makes them believe that their problems will be solved by killing a President. The play features nine historical figures who either attempted to or were successful in assassinating U.S. Presidents.
Each of their patchwork of stories is told from their own (often deranged) viewpoint. Different historical periods interact, having characters from different decades encouraging each other to commit acts of violence. The Balladeer (Carmen LoPresti) appears often to help guide the audience from one time period to another. He plays his role with a great deal of reasonableness –until he doesn’t. (No spoilers here) It’s sometimes uncomfortable watching dozens of guns being waved about, often being aimed at the audience. And yet, somehow, this show manages to illicit lots of hearty laughs from the audience. The underlying themes are our national infatuation with gun violence and the desire that some people have to become famous, and therefore remembered, at any cost. I know–that doesn’t sound funny—but–it is. A very dark comedy.
Sondheim’s songs and lyrics are notoriously difficult to sing and it has been said that they’re meant to be acted–not sung. Anna Gergerich (Squeaky Fromme) apparently didn’t get that memo. She sings beautifully and manages to “act” the songs, as well! Her performance and vocal stylings are standouts. Her scene with Joyce Hinnebusch (Sara Jane Moore) is not only well sung but hilarious.
Hinnebusch, along with a sweet voice, has great comedic timing and hilarious physical comedy chops. She is a real treat to watch.
Tom Protulipac (Sam Byck)is a powerful force as he rants against Richard Nixon. His portrayal as a mentally deranged man is frighteningly authentic. He takes us on a remarkable roller coaster ride of mercurial emotions. His monologue as he tapes a message to Leonard Bernstein convincingly showcases Sam’s mental instability. His maniacal laugh is chilling.
John Wilkes Booth (Ian C. Olson) acts well in his portrayal of Booth, a notoriously bad actor. He engages us with his facial expressions and sometimes comical movements. His gorgeous black silky suit is a perfect choice of a costume for a fop. Kudos to costume designer Dana Schulte.
Brandon Marzke (John Hinkley Junior) somehow manages to make Hinkley a sympathetic character. He plays him as vulnerable and somewhat pathetic in his love sickness. His duet (I’d Do Anything For You) with Anna Gergerich is deeply moving.
The very large talented cast, under the savvy direction of Jeff Johnston takes every opportunity to highlight the humor as well as the pathos in this show.
The live orchestra is in another room with their music being piped into the theater. What a perfect way to control the volume so that the vocalists are clearly heard!
So much in this production is brilliantly done. Although the themes are dark, this production strangely satisfies and entertains. It is a challenging undertaking for a community theater to take on this bigger than life show. I’m happy to tell you that Riverfront seamlessly meets that challenge.
Runs through November 18 at Riverfront Theater Company, Allegheny RiverTrail Park, 285 River Avenue. Pittsburgh, PA 15215. For more information, click here.