A Bold and Provocative Production of Sondheim's Assassins
Kalon Thibodeaux, Ben Knoll, Ty Blair, Edward Hightower, Charles Evans
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins is a tough musical to produce on anyone's stage, but the Custom Made Theatre is presenting an intrepid and stimulating production through July 21st at the Off Market Theatre.
Over the years I have seen many productions of this ironic paean to presidential assassins, including the recent Broadway production at Studio 54 with an all-star cast. Several local regional theatre companies have presented the one hour forty-five minute musical, including the controversial production by the defunct Venus Arising Company. The American Musical Theatre of San Jose attempted to present the musical in two acts several years ago.
Assassins is not a musical for the masses but for the open-minded musical aficionado. I must admit when I first saw the divisive piece, I was taken aback. Since then, I have appreciated the complex melodies and lyrics of one of America's greatest tune smiths.
Custom Made Theatre's scintillating, fast-paced production features mostly strong voices and excellent acting. Some of the voices are weak, but those actors make up for it with their acting skills. Upon entering the theatre a quartet consisting of a violin, accordion, drum and piano are playing American folk songs like "My Old Kentucky Home." The Proprietor (Charles Evans), along with the rest of the cast, comes onto the small stage to sing "Everybody's Got the Right" as the quartet swings into Sondheim's intricate melodies.
Kalon Thibodeaux (Gay Divorce, Minnie's Boys at 42nd Street Moon and I Hate Hamlet at CCT) is outstanding as Leon Czolgosz. He is brilliantly disturbing as the man who assassinated President McKinley on behalf of "the good working people." Thibodeaux' rendition of the gun song with the rest of the cast is fear-provoking.
Edward Hightower (Oliver!, She Loves Me, Nine) gives an ardent performance as John Wilkes Booth and has that southern theatrical accent down perfectly. Chris Uzelac (The Merry Widow, Seussical) dressed a head to toe in black, delivers a highly polished portrait of the deluded Charles Guiteau. He shines in "The Ballad of Guiteau" as he mounts the stairs of the intimate theatre.
Molly Coogan (worked with 42nd Street Moon, Magic Theatre, Theatreworks) and Shelley Lynn Johnson (A Little Night Music, Man of No Importance) are entertaining as the satanic Manson waif and the wacko housewife, respectively. Ben Knoll (recent theatre arts graduate from Truman Stage University) looks and acts like the lovesick John Hinckley. He gives an effective rendition of "Unworthy of Your Love."
Perry Aliado (third production with this company) sports an authentic accent as Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to assassinate FDR. He gives good account of himself in the song "How I Saved Roosevelt." Ty Blair (The Buddy Holly Story, Ragtime) is first rate as the frightening, loud-mouth Sam Byck, who was obsessed with Richard Nixon. Aliado operates on high energy when he give his two solos. Charles Evans (Merrily We Roll Along, Company) gives a pleasurable performance as The Proprietor.
Leah S. Abrams (co-founder of the company) is top notch as The Balladeer. Gabriel A. Ross (Equus) comes onto the stage in the last fifteen minutes as Lee Harvey Oswald. He gives an impressive and upsetting performance as the assassin of JFK.
Choral work by the complete cast is stirring, especially the renditions of "Everybody's Got the Right" sung at the beginning and end of the one-act musical. Brian Katz' direction is very creative with very limited resources on the bare bones stage. One could say that only Sondheim could have created such a musical that caters to our darkest instincts.
Assassins runs through July 21 at the Off-Market Stage, 965 Mission Street, (between 5th and 6th), San Francisco.
Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area
- Richard Connema