Before making your way over to Theatre Latté Da’s latest achievement in Assassins, be sure to practice your ring toss. It’ll come in handy as you try to win prizes in one of the on-stage audience participation carnival activities during the hour-long pre-show. It took me three tries (and a very patient Leon Czolgosz) before I succeeded. The thing about the ring toss is it’s much more complicated than it looks.
But so is Assassins.
Which is where the festive pre-show comes into play. Bouncing club music and glimmering lights immediately establish a high-energy, comfortable mood in the Ritz Theatre. Rub shoulders with John Wilkes Booth as he encourages you to knock off a president or with Giuseppe Zangara who challenges you to best the Electro-Wire. The interactive carnival is the first of many brilliant conceptual decisions by Latté Da’s Artistic Director and Assassins director Peter Rothstein because it instantly humanizes the infamous assassins presented in this musical.
Empathizing with some of the most despised figures in American history is the bold challenge that Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) present to the audience. Anachronistic in nature, the musical begins in limbo when the proprietor of a carnival invites nine soon-to-be presidential assassins (some more successful than others) inside to shoot a president. The next one hundred minutes are spent exploring the motivation and conscience of a select group of men and women who broke America.
Two omniscient characters structure the evening. Matt Riehle is the Proprietor, a greasy and creepy Uncle Sam figure with amazing pants who can silence the audience just by smirking at them. And the Balladeer (a trustworthy Tyler Michaels) narrates many of the assassins’ plot lines with the tone of Mark Twain: a tall-tale narrative of American legacy.
Knowing the show by reputation as Sondheim, I was more enraptured by John Weidman’s flavorful book. James Detmar as Samuel Byck was riveting in his tape-recorder rants to Leonard Bernstein and President Nixon. Talk about some monologue work! And the pinball conversations between Sara Jane Moore (Sara Ochs) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Shinah Brashears) were hysterical as they ricocheted off each other. At the end of the show I heard a gentlemen behind me comment “I didn’t realize the show was going to be so dark.” I had the complete opposite reaction; I didn’t realize the show was going to be so funny!
The bewitching, penultimate scene that stole the show for me, though, was John Wilkes Booth (Dieter Bierbrauer) convincing Lee Harvey Oswald (Tyler Michaels) to assassinate John F. Kennedy. Mr. Bierbrauer was a captivating presence and Mr. Michaels, in a few gasping sobs, brought tears to my eyes.
I never thought I would cry for Lee Harvey Oswald.
But this reaction is the exact point of the show and is only bolstered by Theatre Latté Da’s storytelling technique. Stripped down and often double-cast, their productions are focused and distilled, with next-to-no excess. Mr. Rothstein commands this style in order to engage and provoke his audience. The transformation of the Balladeer into Lee Harvey Oswald lends itself to this style and heightens the distortion of the American Dream within this piece. Other stand-out moments in this production are the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the gun-waving promenades through the house, the ferocious kick-line of “Another National Anthem,” and the last few lingering moments of the show.
I won’t spoil those lingering moments for you, but they couldn’t have been done without the work of Lighting Designer Marcus Dilliard. As Mr. Rothstein pointed out in a post-show discussion, it is the lighting of this show that takes the audience on a roller coaster ride. Eli Sherlock’s carnival set, color blocked in red, white, and blue, was a well-worn and dingy playground for the performance with several tricks up its sleeve (just pay attention in “The Ballad of Guiteau.”)
Costumes by Alice Fredrickson were instrumental in creating historically recognizable figures, but also enforcing the humanity of the assassins while satirizing the common American. Jason Hansen’s band was well-balanced and covered a wide range of musical styles. And kudos to Stage Manager Amanda K. Bowman for accurately calling more gun-shot cues than a John Wayne shoot ‘em up.
Assassins could easily offer itself up for public backlash, but a well crafted production, such as this, should be implemented as a conversation starter. The show’s relevance today is undeniable. But Assassins doesn’t assume to provide any answers for the questions it asks. It, instead, leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions and do their own digging. Which is inevitable, take it from me.
I may not have the answers for you...ever. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that booking yourself a couple seats for Assassins at Theatre Latté Da needs to be high on your priority list. (Several performances include a post-show discussion, which I would highly recommend.) I will most likely be going back--not only do Sondheim and Weidman leave a lot to be unpacked, but so does this production.
Tickets are available at www.latteda.org/ and the show runs through March 18. Just be sure to get there plenty early because the lines to the carnival get long quickly. And you’re going to need multiple attempts at the ring toss.