Review: 'Assassins The Musical' by The Warner Stage Company

Nancy Sass Janis

‘Assassins The Musical’ opened on Saturday at the Warner Theatre’s second stage, The Nancy Marine Studio Theatre. If you haven’t been there since ‘American Idiot,’ I will advise you that the theater has been flipped back to its original arrangement of the stage being along the shorter end of the rectangular space. The amazing carnival midway set for this dark musical designed by Jameson H. Willey fills that stage and extends over the audience and effectively draws them in.

Members of the cast of 'Assassins' Photo by Mandi Martini ©The Warner Theatre 2015

Members of the cast of 'Assassins' Photo by Mandi Martini ©The Warner Theatre 2015

Some Warner patrons may be scared away from this piece by the title alone and others won’t be able to get past the music and lyrics being written by Stephen Sondheim. There is also the warning that the show contains “adult content and strong language and may not be suitable for all ages.” We were warned that there would be gunshots at the onset and the f-word was dropped repeatedly. It is the story of nine infamous individuals who assassinated or attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. The Broadway production was postponed because of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and this rarely-produced show has been called the most controversial musical ever written. I still loved it.

The book for ‘Assassins’ was written by John Weidman, based upon an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr. The Warner Stage Company production was darkly directed by Katherine Ray (and I mean that as a compliment) while Dan Koch was the amazing music director. Ms. Ray (Morticia in the Warner’s wildly successful ‘The Addams Family’) writes in her notes that the show neither trivializes nor glorifies these assassins. “The juxtaposition of intense drama with broad comedy gives the show a nightmarish quality,” she says and describes the show as brave, innovative, thought-provoking, controversial and highly entertaining. All of these adjectives are fitting and I can’t imagine a better director for it.

‘Assassins’ begins with early entrances by the cast members, is presented without intermission or curtain call, and contains only ten musical numbers. The rest is a kind of play within a play of vignettes, selectively enacting and commenting on actual historical events surrounding assassinations or the attempt thereof. It feels long if patrons don’t use the restroom before the show, but I understood why the director made this necessary choice.

The fourteen-member orchestra, under the direction of the talented Mr. Koch (who also plays keyboard, guitar and banjo,) was squeezed into a tiny corner behind the set. They sounded amazing on the mixture of musical styles that Mr. Sondheim penned for the show. The costumes designed by Matt Dettmer were eerily appropriate and the stage was wonderfully lit (by both standard lighting and carnival lights) designed by Mr. Willey. Kudos to prop mistress Karla Woodworth on all of her contributions.

Some of the assassins are more well known than others, but all were brought to life effectively by the community theatre stars in the cast. Matt Cornish had long monologues in his Santa suit as attempted assassin of President Nixon Samuel Byck and pulled it off convincingly. John Farias (Gomez in ‘The Addams Family’) played attempted assassin of President-elect FDR, Guiseppe Zangara, with a perfect accent and stomach pain. Michelle Funaro embodied Lynette “Squeeky” Fromme who attempted to kill Gerald Ford and Joe Harding was the jolly assassin of President Garfield, Charles Guiteau. Josh Newey left Uncle Fester behind and became the spitting image of John Hinckley. Dan Porri sang beautifully as Leon Czolgosz and Suzanne Powers did an amazing job in the role of Sarah Jane Moore, another Ford attempted assassin. Jonathan Ross played the proprietor of the carnival and was a constant presence. 

Members of the cast of 'Assassins' Photo by Mandi Martini ©The Warner Theatre 2015

Members of the cast of 'Assassins' Photo by Mandi Martini ©The Warner Theatre 2015

In the ensemble, Adam Fancher also played the accomplice of John Wilkes Booth, David Herold as well as President Gerald Ford. Tony Leone was Secretary of State James Blaine, and seventh grader Trevor Rinaldi (Little Boy in ‘Ragtime’) played Sarah Jane’s son Billy. Priscilla Squiers reprised her role from ‘Ragtime’ as anarchist Emma Goldman and it was not lost on me that Mr. Porri, who had appeared as Tateh in the same production, interacted once again in a period piece. Keith Paul played President James Garfield and L. Nagle was also in the ensemble.

Naugatuck native Ian Diedrich gave an amazing performance as John Wilkes Booth. The very talented Mr. Diedrich was perfectly cast in this important role that required outstanding singing and acting. Noel Roberge also sang extremely well as the Balladeer and came back at the end of the show as Lee Harvey Oswald. Neil Patrick Harris originated this role on Broadway.

This reviewer was grateful to be able to attend the opening of this seldom-produced musical thanks to an especially helpful box office worker at the Warner. It was a pleasure to see many family members of this stellar cast and other familiar faces in the packed audience for opening night. Although I may not be humming the soundtrack anytime soon, I appreciated the uniqueness of this Sondheim piece. ‘Assassins’ runs through October 4, 2015 at the Nancy Marine Studio Theatre down the street from the Warner mainstage. 

Review: 'The Addams Family' at Warner Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

“They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky. They’re all together ooky, the Addams Family.” And the audience responded,”SNAP SNAP.”

 This eccentric family who delight in everything macabre is on the magnificent Warner stage in Torrington and oddly enough somehow seem to be right at home. ‘The Addams Family A New Musical Comedy’ is of course based on the characters created by Charles Addams in his New Yorker magazine cartoons. Then there was the black and white television series with it’s zany satire that only ran for two seasons, followed by the 90’s movies. This musical picks up a bit later when the daughter Wednesday has grown into dark young womanhood. The book was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. 

Photos of the cast of 'Addams Family'  Photos by Mandi Martini and Luke Haughwout ©The Warner Theatre 2015

Photos of the cast of 'Addams Family'  Photos by Mandi Martini and Luke Haughwout ©The Warner Theatre 2015

 I have previously felt that the plot of the show is a little forced considering the characters and I thought that the second act dragged a bit. However, I was so wrapped up in the Warner Stage Company’s version that perhaps I didn’t have time to notice these criticisms. I know for sure that the classic members of the Addams clan have been perfectly cast and their ancestor ghosts are a very strong small ensemble of fine dancers. Director/Choreographer Foster Evans Reese has gleefully directed their movements and even appeared as a Spanish conquistador ancestor. ‘Addams Family’ marks the third musical he has directed at the Warner, but two productions that he has directed at Watertown High School have earned Halo Awards for Best Musical, this year’s wonderful  ‘Leader of the Pack’ and ‘Once on this Island’ in 2009. 

 I enjoyed all of the entertaining dance numbers and the few sly pop culture references. The chemistry between Morticia (Katherine Ray) and Gomez (John Farias) was as delicious as the consternation between Mal and Alice Beineke played by James M. Wood and Dianna Waller. Ms. Ray looked amazing in her tight black gown cut down to Venezuela and was a formidable Morticia. Mr. Farias, who I immediately remembered as Che in the Warner’s ‘Evita,’ used his wonderful singing voice and accented speaking voice to embody the suave Gomez who wants nothing more than to keep his wife and daughter (un)happy. As for Mr. Wood and Ms. Waller, I can’t think of a better pair to play the parents of Wednesday’s boyfriend Lucas. They were wonderful.

 The audience roots for the odd romance between Wednesday (sung beautifully by Sydney Weiser) and her “normal” boyfriend Lucas earnestly played by Jonathan Zalaski. Ms. Weiser is a rising junior at Hall High School and Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and a fellow of the Ensign-Darling Vocal Fellowship at the Bushnell in Hartford. She is definitely on my list of young performers to watch. The talented Mr. Zalaski attends CCSU for a degree in musical theatre and recently directed Theatre at TCC’s production of ‘Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka.’

 Simsbury HS freshman Colby Morkan was (appropriately) slightly scary as her younger brother Pugsley who isn’t ready to give up his sister. Susan Hackel was a riot as the oddest Grandma on the planet; Ms. Haskel called this her dream role because she has enjoyed doing character voices her whole life. Josh Newey was the loveable Uncle Fester who is in love with the moon. Peter Bard made us laugh as the zombie butler Lurch who didn’t say much until he got to sing so well in the final scene. Don’t miss his reaction when he is called upon to do something quickly by his employer.

 The amazing ancestors were played by Kaitlyn Anthony, Jake Finch, Kramer Kwalick, Kenneth Lautz, Kelsey Morris, Michael Newman in his Warner debut, Patricia Paganucci, Sophie Rundhaug and Mr. Reese. 

 The huge sets designed and executed by Chinchilla Theatricals, Inc. looked very impressive on the massive Warner stage and I could not stop admiring the costumes designed by Lesley Neilson Bowman and Renee C. Purdy and the ancestor makeup by Lauren Jacobs, Lana Peck and Dan C. Willey. Lighting designed by David Zahacewski was spectacular and the sound by Chris LaPlante was as flawless as it usually is. Dan Porri conducted the talented musicians and pit singers in the pit below the stage as they worked their way through this pretty challenging score.

At the Sunday matinee,  Ms Jasmine Mattiello won the right to have a walk on as Cousin It but on opening night that honor went the Kennedy Morris.   I recommend this production of ‘The Addams Family’ as a family show because it really is all about “family first and family last and family by and by! When you’re an Addams, the standard answers don’t apply.” It runs on the Warner mainstage through Aug. 2 and tickets are available at the box office or online at warnertheatre.org.

Review: 'American Idiot' at Warner Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

'Green Day's American Idiot' is running at lightening speed at the Warner Theatre's Nancy Studio Theatre through next weekend. The Warner Stage Company is the first community theater in Connecticut to present this punk rock opera that is loud, brash, vulgar, exhausting, uplifting...and loud. The dancing is hard and fast, the vocals are rocking and the band could easily go out on tour. I loved every single earsplitting, rage and love filled minute of the seamless 90 minute show.

The sung through musical is based on Green Day's Grammy Award winning seventh album 'American Idiot,' a rock opera inspired by the work of The Who. Some additional material came from their follow up recording '21st Century Breakdown.' The Green Day music features lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong and the book was written by Mr. Armstrong and Michael Mayer. A super behind the scenes documentary entitled 'Broadway Idiot' follows Mr. Armstrong from a punk rock concert at Madison Square Garden to the opening of his musical 'American Idiot' on Broadway only ten blocks away. Watching it made me want to see this show immediately, but the touring company's stop at the Palace was during a snowstorm and I missed it. This was the show on the Warner's season that I looked forward to the most and I was not disappointed in the least.

The action focuses on three young men searching for meaning in the world after 9/11. The three fight their own personal wars, literally for one and metaphorically for the other two. It reflects the criticism of the shallow, media saturated culture that was the basis of the original album. The huge set designed by Jameson H. Willey features wooden pallets infused with many working   television sets that showed inventive videos designed by co-director Katherine Ray. It was both busy and stark and although it hid the band very effectively, is probably the best use of the Nancy Marine space that I have ever seen. It definitely was the best place to stage this piece and Ms. Ray and Sharon A. Wilcox have directed it with contemporary and sharp eyes.

Meric Martin was the music director and wailed on the guitar while directing the amazing members of the band seated with him and the string quartet seated on the opposite side of the stage. Despite the seating, the music was seamless. Ms. Wilcox's choreography is probably her best work to date and was an aerobic workout for the young dancers. Think doing sit ups and releasing back to the floor all while singing; it was exhausting for me just to watch and I admired the stamina of the ensemble that was displayed on stage.

Many in this talented young cast were new faces for the Warner that came out simply because they loved the show and every one of them poured their blood, plenty of sweat and some tears into their roles.   Christopher Franci (referred to as Jesus of Suburbia) was a strong singer in the role of the protagonist, the couch wallowing Johnny. Scott Murphy played one of his best friends, the beer swigging Will and Stephen Lenczewski rounded out the trio in the role of the soldier Tunny. All three carried the weighty roles and usually moved around their own furniture pieces as well.

Tony Leone was amazing in the role of the scary St. Jimmy, the part that Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong played on and off on Broadway to the delight of his fans. Mr. Leone gave him a run for his money as the drug dealer who is revealed to be a drug-addled figment of Johnny's imagination. The rest of the men of the Idiot nation included Jesse T. Hunter, Rodney K, Rick Mantell, Noel Roberge and Ruben Soto ('Ragtime.')

The always wonderful Katie Brunetto played Will's pregnant girlfriend Heather and her voice rose on her solo in "Dearly Beloved." Ms. Brunetto often joined the ensemble for their dance numbers as well. Lynn D'Ambrosi was outstanding as Whatsername (as her character is called) who interacts with Johnny and Lauren Jacob was just as strong as Extraordinary Girl, the nurse who cares for Tunny. The women of the ensemble included the super dancers Erica Blasko, Michelle Funaro, Morgan Grambo, Jenna Morin, Rachel Newman, Rachel Perlin, Breanna Riollano and Beverly Rodenberg.

Adding to the experience of this piece was the band playing Green Day classics (probably an oxymoron) as patrons found their seats in the sold out house. I immediately noticed that speakers were placed under the bleachers and Mr. Martin confirmed that the subwoofers had been brought in from the mainstage to pump up the sound. The lighting designed by Mr. Willey was perfect and included a crazy 855 cues in the ninety minutes. Chris LaPlante worked his magic on the sound board and Renee C. Purdy and Jessica Camarero designed the punk-inspired costumes. Because the set included no back stage area, the actors changed in the hallways where the props were stored. 

I didn't recognize all of the musical numbers, but every one of them moved the plot along. I enjoyed the execution of all of my Green Day favorites, like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "21 Guns," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," and "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life.)" I will admit that I actually saw one usher offer an older patron a set of earplugs before the show, but he declined. Only two ticket holders left after the second number; clearly the show is not for everybody. The audience was decidedly and refreshingly young for a Sunday matinee.

Tickets for the remaining weekend are limited but are available. I was able to secure one the morning of the matinee for a seat far stage right and I would gladly sit there again. This truly is a show not to be missed by anyone who likes Green Day or cutting edge musicals in the style of 'Hair' and 'Rent;' in my opinion 'American Idiot' is the best of the three and I hope that this is just the first of many productions that will run in CT. I will be there for them all. Congratulations to the Warner Stage Company for being on the cutting edge and for this memorable experience that will be one of the favorite shows of the year. 


Caption: The Warner Theatre Presents:Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT. Photos by Luke Haughwout ©2015