Staging the works of Stephen Sondheim is quite an undertaking for any production company. Make it Assassins and you’ve got a subject matter than may not appeal to many people. But, it should.Sondheim’s Assassins is populated with assassins throughout U.S. history, successful and attempted, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. But, they’re not heroes in this show. Instead, the concept centers around their belief that all you have to do is move your little finger and you can change the world. But, after squeezing that trigger they find angry men don’t write the rules, and guns don’t right the wrongs. That is, unless they can convince Lee Harvey Oswald to kill the president instead of himself.Not only can staging Sondheim be awkward, but casting it can be, as well. Sondheim isn’t the easiest to sing. So, it requires the right singers. More than that, Sondheim’s shows aren’t for singers who can act. There’s depth to his characters. His shows are better populated by actors who can sing. (Angela Lansbury, anyone?) The Green Room Theatre’s production, fortunately, is well cast, almost perfectly, though not quite.
There’s a distinct split in the cast list. There are those who immerse themselves completely in their character, becoming the assassin rather than simply acting the part. And then there are those who are acting the part, with staged expressions and “wait for the next specific blocking” drops in character. No one in the cast is bad, nor merely adequate, however. It’s actually the difference between good and exceptional.
In the exceptional category is Lou Hare, who portrays John Wilkes Booth. While others may put more stock in the Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald, I think Booth is the foundation of the show. He’s the one who sets the long line of assassinations in motion. And, in the show, he’s the one to push Oswald toward assassination rather than suicide. He has to be solid. While Hare may not be as solid as others in the singing department, missing a few notes here and there, he’s spot on with his acting. Instead of playing Booth loud and commanding (as I expected), Hare takes a calmer, more realistic approach. He’s solid in his viewpoint, if milder in his manner. He is human, in that he has his beliefs, but Hare’s Booth also holds back a bit, perhaps conveying the mediocre actor Booth truly was, whether intended or not.
Opposite of Hare’s softer approach, Michael Callahan’s Gisueppe Zangara is severe, loud. Not once did Callahan drop his accent. Nor did he drop the pain in his stomach. Nor any notes while singing. Callahan is captivating, frightening. He is Zangara, with his weird belief that assassinating a president will stop the pain in his stomach. And that voice! Powerful, solid and filling the entire room with its deep beauty. Some of the humor of the character is lost in Callahan’s solid, pained performance, but the performance is so real, so exceptional, it hardly matters. (I also could help but hope to see him portray Pirelli in Sweeney Todd someday, a role for which I think he is perfectly made.)
But the most real of any peformance in this production is Melissa Anderson Clark’s Squeaky Fromme. She was so good, I couldn’t believe it. I actually watched her closely to spot the moment she dropped character, the moment she’d drop Fromme’s conviction and motivation. To my delight, she didn’t. Her portrayal of Fromme is breathtaking and perhaps the best performance I’ve yet to see on a Quad Cities stage. Ever.
Which is hard to say when it comes time to share my thoughts on Eddie Staver III’s performance as Sam Byck. I’ve said before that he’s my favorite Quad Cities actor, and he remains so. Unfortunately, I’ve never liked Byck’s role in Assassins. I don’t like long monologues and Byck has really long monologues. And, I hate the device used to justify them, Byck making tapes of his personal sermons to send to Leonard Bernstein and President Nixon. While Byck may have done that in real life, it seems contrived on stage. But, that’s the role, not the actor. Staver does an excellent job believing what he’s saying. I find his long monologues far more listenable than Mario Cantone’s (whose track I skip when listening to the New Broadway Cast Album). Staver manages to bring Byck into his being, from inflection, to believing his own words, to his body language. It’s another fine performance from Staver, even if the role is my least favorite.
At the start of The Green Room’s production, my least favorite on stage was Mark Ruebling’s portrayal of Charles Guiteau. I thought, “Oh, boy. Here’s the overactor who belongs in community theater with less lofty theatrical goals.” I found him entirely annoying. Yet, as the show progressed, he grew more endearing to me. And, I realized, his portrayal is truly fitting of the Guiteau role. The chipper air mixed with the self-promotion and nods to God were both believable and enjoyable because of Ruebling’s odd portrayal. From liking him the least, I wanted to see more of Guiteau. In fact, he’s one of two actors who consistently brought a smile to my face simply by his presence on stage.
The other would be Jackie Madunic as Sara Jane Moore. I knew she’d be notable the moment I heard she was cast in the role. She’s got the perfect ding-bat presence and smile (not in real life, but on stage as Moore). She’s delightful! She’s hilarious and over the top without being out of control. Truly delightful!
David Turley has one of the smaller roles in John Hinckley, which is a shame. If I were to meet him in person, I’d expect him to be quietly, internally neurotic, with it affecting his social interaction enough to make him seem shy and a bit “off”. That is Hinckley. His portrayal is so convincing, I’d have trouble believing this is not what he’s truly like in real life. All of the paranoia and less vocal madness is there. It’s a shame is wasn’t there on stage longer.
Also notable is Wendy Czekalski, who is part of the ensemble and handles a majority of the solo portion of “Something Just Broke”. I was enamored by her. She has a jovialness that’s enthralling and pulled my attention. I’m anxious to see her again on a Quad Cities stage.
Ryan Westwood takes on the dual role of the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald. And here is where we split between the two groups of actors, those who are exceptional, fully believable and those who are acting. Westwood falls into both categories. As the Balladeer, he has an innocence about him as he tells the stories of these killers. While there’s still a touch of that boyish sound he brought to John of John & Jen, it’s fitting as this is the character with which we, as the audience, can relate. We certainly can’t relate to the assassins. But, good theater requires a connection to someone. And, Westwood’s thoroughly likeable Balladeer is that someone. Here, he is notable. Unfortunately, his Lee Harvey Oswald is not quite as good. Westwood’s Oswald seems forced and his motivation is difficult to ascertain, as he seems to go through the motions of being Oswald, trying to portray the feelings, but not thoroughly committed to them.
Curtis Oelschlaeger seems to suffer the same symptoms. An excellent singer, he is a pleasure to hear. I could listen to him perform the entire show for me, he’s so good. But, his Leon Czolgosz is not a fully developed character. Oelschlaeger even seems a bit uncomfortable on stage, which is too bad. He’s still good, mind you. But, he would be another exceptional cast member were his acting abilities to match his vocal ones.
Jon Schrader is actually quite good as the Proprietor, but there’s a problem with the role itself, at least in this production. Director Derek Bertelsen chose not to highlight the carnival game aspect of the show with anything physical on stage (other than the Proprietor handing out guns). It’s a baffling choice, in my opinion, as the lyrics themselves play into the game theme. Shoot a president and win a prize is the theme connecting the assassins, all who think they’ll win by killing the leader of the United State of America. Without the physical aspects of this game, what’s the point of the Proprietor? He seems merely a guy there to hand out guns, then be the focus of everyone’s anger when they don’t get a prize. Why? How is he necessary in this capacity? Without the carnival game, it seems the roles of the Proprietor and the Balladeer could be combined, except that the Proprietor encourages the assassins to play by assassinating, while the Balladeer is an observer, a storyteller who is not condoning the assassins’ actions. Even though I know the Proprietor is the man manning the Shoot and Win game, watching this production, I still found his inclusion confusing. This, again, is not the fault of Schrader, who does a fine job playing the part.
It’s rare that the musicians stand out to me (unless they’re really bad), but, in the case of The Green Room, they often do, particularly Danny White. He has tremendous musicality at the piano. Never does he merely play the notes before him. Consistently, he interprets them. He adds his expression to them and they take on a role of their own. I was captivated during each interlude, during each piece of accompaniment that did not accompany lyrics, if only for a few bars. White brings the music to life, so that it is just as thrilling, just as moving and just as enjoyable as watching an actor expertly portray a role.
It is to the Quad Cities benefit that attendance has been so good, the show is extended for another weekend. I wholeheartedly reccomend making your reservations (now, since it is selling out) so as not to miss this, one of the finest productions the Quad Cities has to offer.
Posted: August 8th, 2008 under Theater.