Sunday, November 3, 2013

Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman; Red Herring Productions, November 2, 2013

"We are servants of life in upward
progressive motion. Fanners
of the flame. Resistance is electric
Fred sd, its measurable on every

The wd be stoppers of revolution
are its fossil fuel."
-Amiri Baraka, "'There was Something I Wanted to Tell You' (33) Why?"

Welcome back. Red Herring.

Part of me was always going to love some musicals, my Mom loves and loved them too much for it to be otherwise (everything from Oklahoma to On The Town to Rocky Horror, I saw and heard it growing up) but the gateway drugs for me to love musicals of my own and love them in a way that integrated with my overall love of music and theater and art were Sweeney Todd (the subject matter tailor made for a kid who loved horror fiction most of all) and Rent (as a teenage boy at that time it felt like a holy grail to absorb to seem worldly and hopefully get laid) and most of all Assassins which blew my head wide open in the the way it layered history and absurdity and genre and drenched everything in irony but used the irony to cut through deeper, not as a crutch or a dodge.  And for that, I have my old pal Doug Smith to thank.

Red Herring's return to Columbus theater - after a production of Krapp's Last Tape that I sadly didn't get to see because of timing - with the expectations of one of my long time favorites, is an unqualified success and the cap on the best (calendar) year of musicals in this town that I can remember.  Go see this.  Everything else I'm going to say is filling in boxes.

The production's tagline, "When every kid can grow up to be president, what happens when every kid doesn't?" is driven home again and again with the 9 principal assassins with differing levels of gravitas and motivations that a sane person could follow even though deranged and vile or motivations that seem like nothing so much as a tantrum.  This production, in particular, does a phenomenal job of balancing these people, bouncing them off each other and simultaneously hearing everyone out but not trying to inflate the lesser or weaker motivations just to create an even playing field.  In some productions, the interstitial non-musical sequences can drag or even feel like a distraction from the potency of the score but John Dranschak's direction here and the finely choreographed motion of the assassins around each other keeps the audience held to their seat.

Kate Lingnofski's Squeaky Fromme and Christopher Storer's John Hinckley are revelations here. Storer (already fantastically good in Evolution's tick, tick... boom earlier this fall) shrinks into the role of Hinckley and is almost unrecognizable, cocooned in insecurity and pain with a perpetual slouch and a voice that goes from mumble to roar at the flip of a switch but never learned the middle ground the rest of the world usually hovers in, his obsession with Jodie Foster and his never learning an adequate coping mechanism is breathtaking in how subtly it's shown.  And Lingnofski, quite good in small roles in Falsettos and  Merrily We Roll Along, is a supernova here.  Charming, even in her lunacy, selling and nailing down her two relationships, as the glinting shiny artifact of a new world for Sarah Jane Moore (Kim Garrison Hopcraft), and the incendiary fuel of the brother-sister (but unmistakably flirty and sexual and damaged) give and take with Hinckley.  With maybe the weakest song in a just about perfect score, a riff on the kind of Debby Boone '70s ballads that haven't aged well, "Unworthy of Your Love", a duet ballad sung by Lingnofski and Storer to their unobtainable "beloveds", the total commitment from them sells it.  You get the thrall they're in, that would make them do anything for that kind of corny, encompassing love on the radio.

Jay Rittberger as Leon Czolgosz is a marvel of sympathy and disbelief.  Moving from a very touching sequence with Danielle Mann's (terrific) Emma Goldman to vacillating between lecturing John Hinckley about not taking things for granted and not understanding the other assassins who see the world as full of opportunity, opportunity he's been denied even the dream of his whole life.  And a gold plated voice - near the end of the cubist barber shop quartet "The Gun Song", "A gun kills many men before it's done..." twisting the knife in the collective complacency of America and the audience.  His mirror in this ingeniously structured musical is Scott Wilson's Charles Guiteau, the lunacy of really believing you can be anything without regard to luck or skill or consideration of other people.and confusion boiling into rage if you don't get what you want the second you want it, with one of the most gorgeous and blood-curdling solo turns on "The Ballad of Guiteau".  As great as Wilson was in Merrily We Roll Along and Falsettos he blooms like an out of control fire in this material.

Todd Covert's Sam Byck has kind of a thankless job - his tape recorded letters/monologues drag (A. said it was the one point in the entire show where her attention wanders) and get a little too Sondheim in jokey
when writing to Leonard Bernstein and a little too elbow-in-the-ribs "Boy were the '70s vapid and terrible" when he's writing to Nixon in a way that he turns around and makes the emotional core of the show but only by the thinnest of margins.  But he gets every laugh he needs to in a way that makes his repeated line on "Another National Anthem" - "Where's my prize" even more chilling.  In a similar vein, Drew Eberly's Giuseppe Zangara's impotent fury and constant pain and disenfranchisement from society, even the society of the assassins, is one of the most intense things in the show, especially in "How I Saved Roosevelt" where you watch him shoved to the background by the vapid, self-satisfied crowd of "bystanders" with a voice that holds the notes even as you see him crumbling..

Scott Willis' Proprietor stumbles on some of his sung parts but his astonishing announcer voice is the grout in the cracks of the show, the grounding in the real world.

Obviously John Wilkes Booth is the signature role in this show, and Ian Short delivers and even exceeds the expectations he's set in earlier roles.  His crumbling, desperate hope and his self-assurance in the rightness of what he's done send sparks any time he's on stage, most of all in his tete a tete with the Balladeer on "The Ballad of Booth", one of the most insinuating hook-laden songs Sondheim's ever written.  Through the play we watch him encourage and cajole the other assassins with a mot juste until he settles on Lee Harvey Oswald, his spiritual son and brings every inch of Booth's actor training and focused self-awareness to sell his Brutus narrative, he's found someone at such a similar breaking point in history to his own that he understands how the reverberation will give added resonance to his own action.

And the flip side of that father-son relationship, Nick Lingnofski as both the fresh-faced balladeer and Oswald hits every note he needs to and hits it out of the park.  If Booth is the driving force, the balladeer is the viewpoint character and the emotional through line, the "average American" viewpoint who slowly devolves into bullshit platitudes until he sings the line "You can make the lies come true" and the Assassins unite and galvanize and he sells how close the man singing "Damn you, Booth" is to the man falling under the sway of being part of history even through tragedy.  It's an explosive performance, with astonishing singing, and some added extra-textual resonance for local theater fans, watching Booth working over Oswald calling to mind their appearance as co-stars in Merrily, Frank and Charley with an even darker tint.

Not only is John Dranschak's direction spot on, Pam Welsh-Huggins musical direction (abetted by a terrific band) and Dave Wallingford's sound direction are exactly what they need to be.  This was an astonishing production that I hope portends fantastic things from the resurrected Red Herring.