LA Review: 'Assassins'

Coeurage Theatre Company at Actors Circle Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

August 06, 2012

Photo by Kevin McShane
Every time I've seen John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim's controversial musical "Assassins," it has appeared in the wake of a senseless real-life killing spree that has rocked the world. Today, as we reel from the events in Colorado, an unmistakable chill runs through the audience when the players, as our country's most infamous presidential assassins, stand in a line, guns held over their heads, to passionately deliver "Everybody's Got the Right."

The characters in "Assassins" are scarier than any fictional villain, presenting their case for dubious fame and glory in song. The exceptional Ryan Wagner's John Wilkes Booth is shocked as he reads that reporters are questioning his sanity; he considers his elimination of Lincoln to be a heroic act. (Is having him peruse Back Stage an in-joke?) Leon Czolgosz (an understated yet agonized Jonas Barranca) creepily professes his love to Emma Goldman (Sammi Smith) before gunning down McKinley, and Samuel Byck (the gravel-voiced Gary Lamb) tapes conversations for his "friend" Leonard Bernstein as he makes plans to crash a plane into Nixon's White House.

There's Giuseppe Zangara (the splendidly voiced Jason Peter Kennedy) explaining why he aimed for FDR. Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau (Nick Rocz, in the production's only over-the-top misstep) arrives at the gallows while singing and stepping to the minstrel-tinged "The Ballad of Guiteau." Nicole Monet and Kim Reed, as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, provide comic relief as they bumble and misfire their guns as though performing an Abbott and Costello routine. Monet's Fromme and Jesse Bradley's John Hinckley mine some of the show's best moments in the poignant ballad "Unworthy of Your Love."

All this is held together by Aimee Karlin, as the Proprietor, and the incredible Jeremy Lelliott, a charmingly folksy Balladeer. Lelliott first introduces the high-kicking murderers with infectious excitement, then indelibly morphs into a quietly troubled Lee Harvey Oswald as Booth and the others return to talk him into killing JFK. Lelliott's tour de force performance is the heart and soul of the production.

This is challenging material; add to the level of difficulty a cast of 18 fervently driven actors crowded onto the cramped Actors Circle Theatre stage, and it's a marvel how director Julianne Donelle keeps them moving without bumping into one another. Her staging is amazingly fluid despite frequent blackouts between scenes. These would be less mood-breaking if the transitions were handled in blue light, but that's a minor quibble considering the ardent contribution of almost everyone involved, including the dynamic musical direction of Gregory Nabours.

As I watched this sparkling, cleverly bare-bones revival unfold, I wondered if during the time between writing my review and it appearing online some new horrendous assault on our society would be perpetrated, making the relevancy of "Assassins" even more apparent. Before I could hit "send," six people were killed in Wisconsin by a deranged Army vet. "Move your little finger," the twisted killers darkly surmise in Sondheim and Weidman's ever-topical musical, "and you can change the world."

Presented by Coeurage Theatre Company at Actors Circle Theatre, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Aug. 2–Sept. 9. Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Casting by Noah Gillett.

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