- OnStage Blog Contributing Critic
When you think of Sondheim, you usually think of Sweeny Todd, Into the Woods, Company, and so on. Tragically, Assassins, which Sondheim co-created with John Weidman is often overlooked and underproduced. The show is a later work from Sondheim and focuses a lot more on the dialogue part of a musical rather than constant overlapping vocals, allowing for much greater character development and exploration.
Like the name suggests, tells the story of the many people who have attempted or completed an assassination of a US President. It follows the more notable assassins, like Boothe, Oswald, Hinkley Jr., as well as lesser-known assassins like Byck, Guiteau, and Czolgosz. It goes through each assassin’s motives, methods, and moments right before the act. Naturally, with its subject matter, Assassins is not without its controversy, especially given its slightly motivational message, but this critic finds nothing wrong with telling these stories. There is a difference between glorification and exploration when it comes to a character, and the show straddles that line beautifully.
The production at Dominion Stage was a rarity where there wasn’t a bad performance to be seen from the cast. Sure, some characters have more stage time than others and some actors had stronger vocals than others but the word “bad” couldn’t be used to describe any of these actors. Rather, performances ranged from very good to excellent, which is no small feat for community theatre, as many know. Jonathan Cagle-Mulberg gave a true standout performance as John Wilkes Booth, providing one of the biggest emotional backbones of the show, commanding our attention and during "November 22, 1963" he truly shines as one of the shows best.
Another Standout was Jay Tilley, playing Samuel Byck, as he delivers two very captivating and entertaining monologues as well as some other lines and solos from time to time. Being able to stand out in a musical without having songs is truly impressive, and he manages to almost steal the show with his performance. Sarah Elizabeth Edwards also gives a truly fantastic performance as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (attempted assassin of Pres. Ford). Edwards gives all she’s got the role, never being afraid to truly just go for it, really diving into her character with her physicality and line delivery. Aaron Joseph Ware gives the most humorous performance as the assassin of Pres. Garfield, Charles Guiteau. Ware is no stranger to show-stopping numbers and "The Ballad of Guiteau” was no different. Michael Gale was exceptional as The Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald. Gale serves as a sort of narrator to the show, interacting with all other characters, then goes through a dramatic shift to play Oswald. Gale does the transition flawlessly, really shining in this role.
Though Assassins is set on a “fairground”, many productions shy away from going full circus/carnival with its interpretation. This was not the cast for Dominion Stage, who really went all out on the carnival theme, having the set look straight out of a 50’s fairground. Not to mention it’s group of roaming carnies who also served as the show’s ensemble. The set was a miraculous example of doing the best with a small space. It set the tone of the play immediately and its second level added some much-needed room for the actors to work (set design by James Maxted).
With a theatre as tenured as Dominion Stage, you expect a very nice costume wardrobe and they definitely delivered, having circus costumes as well as costumes from all decades from the 1860s- the 1980s. Costume designer Kathy Dunlap deserves real praise for her work here. Finally, this show was held together with the glue of fantastic direction, helmed by Melissa Jo York-Tilley. M. Tilley really captured the true feel of this show and really allowed each of her actors to shine with perfect staging and pacing. Not to mention her fantastic ensemble work, allowing a group of actors who could easily be forgotten to each get their moment to be remembered. She should beyond proud of her work here.
Assassins has one more weekend at Dominion Stage (Gunston Theater Two, 2700 S Lang St, Arlington, VA 22206) with shows on 2/8-10 at 8pm. For more information go to http://dominionstage.org/buytickets/