Windfall’s “Assassins” — a scary/funny Sondheim musical

By - May 7th, 2012 04:00 am
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The “Assassins” cast. Windfall Theatre photo.

I remember, back in 1991, reading early reaction to John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. In a pre-9/11 America, it seemed as though Weidman and Sondheim had made a show out of one of the worst idea possible: putting John Wilkes Booth, John Hinckley and Lee Harvey Oswald (among others) on stage in a musical. It was just too… uncomfortable, the idea of such blots on American history being given a platform, or worse yet, humanizing them.

Many years later, I bought the script and the score and was stunned by the music and the wit. At the same time, it was apparent that the black (what is past black? ultra-violet?) humor would not sit comfortably with many people.

And now I have finally seen Assassins on stage, thanks to Windfall Theatre’s excellent production. It is not a conventional musical. It has no plot per se. A collection of vignettes depict the assassinations of four presidents and the aftermaths of each along, with more fanciful ruminations on what makes people kill famous people. While some of the scenes occur in recognizable locations, others take place in a sort of theatrical “other-when,” where people who lived in different centuries mingle each other and with allegorical figures, such as the Balladeer. He sings songs about the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.

Carol Zippel’s direction hones the dark humor to a razor edge. She even finds humor where it isn’t obvious in the script. The pacing is brisk and the production first-rate, from Ellen Kozak’s costumes to Megan Petersen’s backdrops and set pieces to Kevin Czarnota’s lighting. Pianist Chris Wszalek accompanies, and cast members Ryan Cappleman and Thom Gravelle doing double duty on snare drum and flute. The three provided excellent support and counterpoint to the singers and gave the proper bite to the parodies of well-known tunes in Sondheim’s score.

Everyone in the excellent cast makes Sondheim’s melodies seem effortless, but four actors stand out. Toni Martin (as Lynnette Fromme) and Tamara Martinsek (as Sara Jane Moore) are hilarious together, as the two women who attempted to assassinate President Ford. The odd-couple chemistry between the suburban mom and the self-described “Slave of Charlie Manson” is one of the comedic highlights of the production. Alone, each is excellent, but when they are together on stage, the laughs don’t flow as much as explode off the stage, much as Sara Jane Moore’s misfired bullets.

Equally memorable are Ben George as Charles Guiteau and Mark Bucher as Samuel Byck, for their portrayals of madness. George gives us glorious, irrepressible, larger than life, eyes- flashing insanity, yet his portrayal of Guiteau seems grounded in reality. Charles Guiteau, not so grounded in reality, did, in fact, dance his way to the gallows. Bucher, dressed in an extremely seedy and filthy Santa suit, gives us something dark and uncomfortable. He commanded rapt attention with his rambling monologues to Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon.

While some of Sondheim’s musicals have a difficult reputation (how often does Anyone Can Whistle get staged?), Assassins is in a class by itself. There are no insurmountable demands in the book, no problems with the time-flow running backwards (Merrily We Roll Along); the meat and bones of the show are solid enough to work on any scale in almost any space. Assassins is much like the guns the characters wield — perfectly safe in the right hands but incredibly dangerous in the wrong ones.

I lost track of the number of times that bits of dialogue resonated uncomfortably with current events on both local and national levels, and I uneasily considered what could happen if someone like the characters on stage were to see the show. Windfall Theatre is to be commended both for an excellent production and for the bravery in deciding to do it in the first place.

Cast: Cleary Breunig Michael Bruening Mark Bucher Ryan Cappleman Marcee Doherty Christopher Elst Ben George Thom Gravelle Harry Loeffler-Bell Toni Martin Tamara Martinsek Karl Miller Alison Pogorelc Emily Pogorelc Thomas Rosenthal. Production Team: Director, Carol Zippel; Production Assistant, Shannon Kirkpatrick; Stage Manager, Megan Peterson; Costumes, Ellen Kozak; Lighting, Kevin Czarnota.

Assassins runs at Village Church, 130 E. Juneau Ave., through May 19, with all shows at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20, and can be reserved at (414) 332-3963 or their online box office.

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0 thoughts on “Windfall’s “Assassins” — a scary/funny Sondheim musical”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Milwaukee Rep has also licensed this production and will put it on later this year… Such an awesome show and happy it’s getting more exposure.

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