“Geez,” the woman sitting behind me says in a half whisper/half gasp, as Giuseppe Zangara, the attempted assassin of Franklin D. Roosevelt, jerks and wiggles in the electric chair onstage.
“Assassins” sparks a variety of reactions from audience members — some that you don’t normally associate with musical theater. Shock comes to mind. So does consternation. A musical that pushes you into an intimate acquaintance with nine successful and would-be presidential assassins is a surprising experience to absorb — especially for those walking into the show oblivious of the subject matter. And even for those familiar with the premise and who cherish theater legend Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the score and lyrics, the musical is the kind of experience that slaps you around a little. It’s disconcerting when you find yourself starting to bond with some of the most nefarious names from American history.
For all these reasons and more, I’m excited that Fresno State does the material proud with a terrific, taut production. (It continues through Saturday.)
Director Brad Myers has crafted an experience that is both aggressively cerebral and punch-to-the-gut visceral. Eloquently staged with a minimum of glitz and fuss, his interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s controversial title has a brisk, polished confidence. Even as the audience might feel a little unmoored by the subject matter — it’s quite creepy watching an entire cadre of past and future assassins ganging up on Lee Harvey Oswald and convincing him to kill JFK — Myers doesn’t let us flail. His careful treatment of the material gives us something solid to hold onto even as we muse about such esoteric issues as American individualism and the ease with which a gun can make a nobody into an historical figure.
The show opens with a carnival-style shooting gallery, complete with an assertive pitchman (the Proprietor, played by Jacob Dean Sharar, who has some nice moments in a performance that’s sort of in a sleazy “Cabaret”-style master-of-ceremonies mode, but whose diction in the opening number is weak), exhorting people passing by to participate. Here’s where we first meet our motley crew of assassins, who range from the truly infamous (John Wilkes Booth, played by Darren Tharp) to the barely remembered (Leon Czolgosz, played by Shawn Richard Pereira).
The arc of the show from there is a far cry from an ordinary musical. With the help of a character called the Balladeer (played with a lanky sweetness by Matthew Freitas, who never quite created the narrative bond with the audience I was expecting), we meet up with the various assassins in a series of vignettes. Sometimes we witness the climactic deed itself — or very nearly. (That’s the case with Czolgosz, played by Shawn Richard Pereira, who waits in line to meet President William McKinley and then shoots him.) Other times we get the perspective of the show’s ensemble (known as “The Americans”) ranging from thoughtful (a commentary on social mobility in the U.S. in “Another National Anthem”) to the buffoonish (boastings from people on the scene in the light-hearted tune “How I Saved Roosevelt.”)
Through it all, the assassins keep convening together, sometimes in small groups, other times all together, regardless of time period, almost like they’re some existential band of anti-superheroes.
So many things impress me about this production. Jeff Hunter’s minimalist set employs judiciously deployed large set pieces effectively. Elizabeth R. Payne’s costume design embraces a dizzying array of periods and styles — the assassins range from dashing to frumpy — but with a unified look and feel. Izzy Einsidler’s smoky lighting design is moody yet precise, capturing the non-realistic bent of the material. Walter T.J. Clissen’s sound design put us smack in the middle of history. (Royce Matthews’ choreography is really the only work by a member of the creative team that didn’t wow me.)
And, as always, it’s a treat to have a live orchestra at a Fresno State production, with music director Scott Hancock guiding his musicians in an accomplished rendition of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky score.
The band of assassins is fiercely good as an ensemble. Each brings an intricate piece to the puzzle. Tharp brings a powerful voice and a rich, assured texture to John Wilkes Booth, capturing both the character’s hard-edged partisanship and gentility as he muses about deeper philosophical issues. Torres is a favorite of mine as Zangara — he looks and inhabits the role with the startling, crystalline assurance of an accomplished character actor. Daniel Rodriguez is powerful in a hunched, almost pained portrayal of John Hinckley, Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan. Miguel A. Gastelum gives us a punchy and riveting Samuel Byck, who threatened Richard Nixon.
The “Americans” ensemble gets a chance to soar, too, especially in the powerful “Something Just Broke,” the song in this musical that connects all the pieces in a thoughtful and heartfelt way. (Lauryn Moles, as the housewife, sets the tone with some stirring vocals.)
Three performances stand out for me above all. Caitlin Stevenson, as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Leslie Martin, as Sara Jane Moore, have a thrilling comic spark in their scenes together contemplating Gerald Ford’s assassination. (It helps make things funnier when no one gets hurt, as in Ford’s case.)
And Brian Pucheu, as a dapper Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield, is pitch perfect in all regards: acting, vocals, stage presence. (His soft-shoe scenes approaching the scaffold are bitterly funny, and the jerk of his head in the hangman’s noose truly frightening.)
Guiteau sings, “I have unified my party, I have saved my country, I shall be remembered!” Stirring words, to be sure. But infamy is a tricky thing. It’s a safe bet Guiteau never would have guessed he’d wind up immortalized in a memorable Fresno State musical.
Bee photo / Craig Kohlruss