Stephen Sondheim Dares Us to Look at Our Violence
by Kim Waldron
“Every now and then the country goes a little wrong,” sings the “Assassins” Proprietor, the tap-dancing Keith Pinto. This cheery huckster introduces us to nine assassins who attempted to kill US presidents. Five succeeded.
Quite a guy, this sparkling balladeer, who sells guns to the killers and incites their murderous urges. Relax. This is a Sondheim musical and there’s plenty of laughs.
John Weidman’s book melds nine stories over a hundred years. The killers interact over time— singing and dancing together. The stage is stacked helter-skelter into levels to fit free-flowing action, with lots of radios and screens with scenes from the assassinations.
The stories echo each other. Sondheim doesn’t ask for empathy for the assassins; he throws bright light on their rage and despair. He warns us: “Attention must be paid” to the dispossessed, the misfits, the mad. As their numbers grow, it’s a damn good idea.
The large cast is all high caliber. Andre Amarotico as John Wilkes Booth is strikingly powerful. He so looks the part that I wanted to ask for a DNA test. He’s the consummate actor, his movements communicate as much as his sneers.
Brigitte Losey as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme stands out, managing to be both eerily creepy and sympathetic. She sings the world’s weirdest love duet with Nick Kenrick’s obsessive, misfit John Hinckley. Kenrick’s morose loneliness is palpable.
Losey’s Fromme has hilarious conversations with Sara Jane Moore, played to perfection by Hayley Lovgren. Lovgren transforms what could be just a stereotyped featherbrained housewife into an absurd but likeable woman.
Benjamin Ball’s Leon Czologosz convinces of us his righteousness. He breaks our hearts.
Angela Harrington masters the role of the formidable Emma Goldman, who chances into a meeting with Leon. Emma and Leon comfort one another over the harsh realities facing immigrants—this kindness provides the one sweet moment in this deranged world.
Ted Zoldan’s Charles Guiteau, a gleeful madman, grins with confidence and ambition, an eye-catching force of nature. He even dances up to the scaffold singing a song written by the real Guiteau for the occasion.
Andrew Cope’s volatile ramblings as Samuel Byck, the wanna-be killer of Richard Nixon, are wildly funny and downright scary.
Julio Chavez’s Lee Harvey Oswald is tormented and bitter, but here he’s not a willing killer. In this time-bending world, Oswald must be persuaded to act through a stunning musical encounter.
Sondheim’s favorite moment in “Assassins” is when guns are pointed at the audience because “Facing the barrel of a gun, even when it’s just in a musical, is the kind of shock that can exist only in live theater.” These assassins all point their guns away from us. Sadly, avoiding the truth won’t protect us.
See Hillbarn’s “Assassins” because:
1. It’s great theater!
2. Sondheim said “Assassins” is his “only show that is close to perfection. …There’s almost nothing I would want to change.”
3. Sondheim wrote “Assassins” in 1990, but you won’t find better clues to understanding the men and women who invaded the Capitol on January 6.
“Assassins”—book by John Weidman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., directed by Joshua Marx, at Hillbarn Theatre, Foster City, California. Info: Hillbarn.org – to February 12, 2023.
Cast: Andre Amarotico, Benjamin Ball, River Bermudez-Sanders, Wynne Chan, Julio Chavez, Andrew Cope, Jesse Cortez, Angela Harrington, Zachary Isen, Leo Itzkovitz, Nick Kenrick, Brigitte Losey, Hayley Lovgren, Keith Pinto, Shelby Stewart, Rhys Townsager, and Ted Zoldan.
Banner photo: John Wilkes Booth (Andre Amarotico) & the Assassins show Lee Harvey Oswald (Julio Chavez) his future. Photo by Tracy Martin