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.
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.
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.