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Sondheim Shoots Himself in the Foot with “Assassins,” Now at PlayMakers Rep

"Assassins" stars (from left) Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz (photo by Jon Gardiner)

“Assassins” stars (from left) Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz (photo by Jon Gardiner)

PlayMakers Repertory Company is to be praised for taking on the issues of guns as a theme this year, starting with The Story of the Gun, a monologue piece by the ironically named humorist/commentator Mike Daisy. They have followed it up with the 1990 musical production Assassins with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, which deals with some of the attempted as well as all the successful murderers of our country’s presidents.

The quality of performance in this production is first rate, from set to action and all the elements in-between. The carnival atmosphere is well-established in the marquee’s red-and-white lights and the staircases and catwalk, and the pit in the middle of the thrust stage, and the orchestra placed way up stage. The music and costumes all enhance the garish air of carnival unreality. The performers sing, dance, and cavort with high energy and artistic sincerity, although where we were sitting the sound amplification was insufficient some of the time to understand the lines and lyrics. As regards the performance itself, we enjoyed the show.

We expect a great deal more of Stephen Sondheim than a string of “Saturday Night Live” skits; and frankly, we feel SNL would have put more meat onto these bones than Sondheim and Weidman did. There were subtleties, but all told the show was more cute than clever and bordered on being silly.

We wonder what he had in mind other than parading milk-sop cliches to a nation already in the throes of comprehending the national obsession with shooting guns. If Sondheim needed to satirize our situation, then he should have put some weight in his hands. Perhaps, it’s just that this was a bad week for this subject; and no one could have foreseen that. But do we really need to make the President of the United States — one of the most sought-after targets in the world for over 150 years — our topic when there are children — all kinds children by the carloads being gunned down every day. And in this show, the President is not a viable substitute for those lost lives. Is this in good taste?

Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz, and Patrick McHugh as Lee Harvey Oswald do outstanding work as the killers of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. Joseph Medeiros as Guiseppe Zangara, Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Sam Byck, Brandon Garegnani as John Hinckley, Maren Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore are wonderful as the failed would-be killers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald W. Reagan, and Gerald R. Ford. The folksy balladeer is played with humor by Spencer Moses, and the Proprietor is played like a fairway barker by Ray Dooley. Scott McCartney Gilliam is delightfully funny as Billy, Sarah Jane Moore’s son.

Costumer Anne Kennedy has chosen timely clothing for the characters, helping to keep the different time periods straight; and lighting designer Charlie Morrison has created effective areas of dark for characters to emerge from as from the past and appropriate mixes of color to match the action on stage. Choreographer Casey Sams and movement coach Craig Turner have created energetic and enthusiastic dances and gestures for this hard-working cast; and director Mike Donahue keeps this show humming like a well-tuned race car, with a constant razzle-dazzle ambience that also bespeaks the festival the show is.

"Assassins" stars Maren Searle (left) and Julie Fishell as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (photo by Jon Gardiner)

“Assassins” stars Maren Searle (left) and Julie Fishell as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (photo by Jon Gardiner)

SECOND OPINION: April 7th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=6772; and April 4th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with director Mike Donahue and actress Julie Fishell, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/singing-dancing-assassins; and April 1st Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Juanita Chavarro: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2014/04/playmakers-brings-assassins-to-the-stage. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the April 2nd Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2014/04/playmakers-rep-will-end-its-main-stage-season-with-a-bang-with-stephen-sondheims-assassins/.)

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents ASSASSINS at 7:30 p.m. April 8-11, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 12, 2 p.m. April 13, 7:30 p.m. April 15-18, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 19, and 2 p.m. April 20 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15-$45 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), except 15-per-ticket (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances. There are also discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-843-2311, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.

SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/assassins.

NEWS RELEASE: https://uncnews.unc.edu/2014/03/18/playmakers-presents-sondheims-tony-winning-assassins/.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, and https://twitter.com/playmakersrep.

BLOG: PlayMakers Page to Stage: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: At 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 8th, there will be an All-Access Performances, with sign-language interpretation, audio-described by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh.

NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the creative team after the Wednesday, April 9th, and Sunday, April 13th, performances.

NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 12th. (for more information, click http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption).

NOTE 5: The Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussions after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 19th, and the 2 p.m. Sunday, April 20th performances.

OTHER LINKS:

Assassins (1990 Off-Broadway, 1992 West End, and 2004 Broadway musical) http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000136 (Music Theatre International), http://www.sondheim.com/shows/assassins/ (Sondheim.com), http://www.sondheimguide.com/assassins.html (Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=10563 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassins_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: http://www.mtishowspace.com/action/file/download?file_guid=193862 (Music Theatre International).

Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics): http://www.sondheim.org/ (Stephen Sondheim Society), http://www.sondheim.com/ (Sondheim.com), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Sondheim (Wikipedia).

John Weidman (book): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Weidman (Wikipedia).

Mike Donahue (Brooklyn NY director): http://www.mikemdonahue.com/Portfolio.html (official website) and http://playmakersrep.org/performances/embed_artist.aspx?id=a2cd02db-e01c-4a24-8e6e-655c1dfca6bf (PlayMakers Repertory Company bio).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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