Review: Assassins by Soubrette Productions
by David Glen Robinson

Assassins has perhaps one of the most bizarre premises in musical theatre, the conjuration of the elite class of American assassins, those who attempted the lives of American presidents, successfully or not. Steven Sondheim and John Weidman brought together this scurvy crew and gave them songs to sing to explain and justify themselves and the climactic actions of their lives.

Thus we gained an ensemble of characters including Leon Czolgosz (killed McKinley), Charles Guiteau (killed Garfield), Guiseppe Zangara (wounded FDR), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (attempted Ford), John Hinckley (wounded Reagan), and Sam Byck (stalked Nixon but never got close).

They are led by the gold standard of assassins, John Wilkes Booth (need I say: assassinated Lincoln?). Who else but that nonpareil of history would leap to the stage after changing the world and shout “sic semper tyrannus” to the audience and go on to prefer immolation to hanging?

This show posits that the intent of all those American assassins seemed to be the same: to gain justice for themselves and America, because the man at the top was responsible for throwing the nation and themselves out of balance. Beyond this, the personalities and characters of the assassins diverge all over the lot. Booth seemed to have a Nietschean will to power and megalomania; others said he did it in revenge for bad theatrical reviews. Sara Jane Moore was so incompetent and befuddled that she accidentally shot her little dog on the way to attack Ford. Roast in hell, Moore.

Hinckley and Byck both come across as mentally whiffed. More than one audience member would have liked to have perused the reading list of assassins’ biographies that must have comprised the research for Weidman’s book. Weidman compounded all of his material into a kind of topsy-turvy political philosophy of cynicism and mockery of American values. While perhaps appropriate for a collective of assassins, that message becomes oppressive when hurled musically at an audience.

This production is not entirely sung.  It is fitting that the ensemble is loaded with excellent actors, well cast and directed by rising stars Philip Olson and Justin Scalise. Assassins is an example of the contemporary narrative style of musical theatre, in which the songs are sung dialogues, not traditionally structured songs. Some of the scenes are entirely spoken. 

The strength of the production is the acting. Musical design is impressive and competent, but many of the singing voices are not strong, and this gives the singing an uneven quality. Purists may find this annoying.

Nathan Brockett performed exceptionally well as Booth, leader of the bloody band, both singing and speaking. Superbly costumed by Stephanie Dunbar, Brockett never dropped his genteel Old South accent even in the most arduous of dialogues. Robert Deike as Sam Byck didn’t sing at all, and this established a perfect contrast. He used a growling bear of a voice to portray Byck and curse Nixon, eat fast food and drink beer, and wear part of a Santa Claus suit. He exuded foul odors of a homeless man, and apparently, decades before 9/11, plotted to fly a Boeing 747 into the White House. (To be perfectly clear, these comments are about the character; Robert Deike is a brilliant actor with good hygiene.)

Brian Losoya as John Hinckley  is without doubt the strongest voice in the cast. Once again,  Losoya stands out from the crowd without upstaging fellow actors, an achievement that's also a tribute to the directing. He sings in apparently relaxed fashion, confidently, with little of the vibrato other singers sometimes apply to ratchet up their intensity, a technique that Ethel Merman made famous. Losoya’s tones are delightfully clear, and he is underused in Assassins. Losoya is ready for leading roles in musical theatre; the pipes are there, and he deserves many more opportunities in the near future before film captures him and doesn’t let him come back.

Ia Ensterä produced a highly functional set with exceptional sightlines. Its appearance is as a reviewing stand for a parade or political rally with the President. It features raked levels or risers painted and draped all over with red, white and blue, and nineteenth-century touches decorate it (oval-framed portrait photographs and the like).   A projection screen stands upstage center, also draped. Gallows steps are wheeled in as needed.

The climactic scene takes place in the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, featuring the surprise guest star, that reigning god of all assassins, Lee Harvey Oswald. Andrew Cannatta, who also sings the role of the Balladeer, is Oswald. The shade of John Wilkes Booth visits Lee Harvey in the Depository and eventually the other assassins join them. Booth seeks earnestly to convert Oswald from suicide (!) to assassination. Booth carefully distinguishes murder from assassination; he contends that the act of assassination is a vibrant, living thing that changes history and guarantees one’s privileged place in it. Mere murder is for nobodies; suicide is for less than that. Fellow assassins fairly hiss at the conspiracy-mongering over the years that would detract from the fame and glory of the Lone Gunman. Attention must be paid.

The show should have ended at that point.  The subsequent material merely obscures the show’s theme, so brilliantly brought to its climax here.

But those are issues for Sondheim. Soubrette Productions has scored an impressive musical theatre victory. Musical theatre fans will look for more well-staged offerings from this company.

by Sondheim and Weidman
Soubrette Productions

April 03 - April 20, 2014
Boyd Vance Theatre
George Washington Carver Center
1165 Angelina Street,
Austin, TX, 78702

April 3-20, 2014, Thursdays - Sundays at 8 p.m.

Join us April 3-20 at the Carver Center to celebrate this historically dark and comedic musical about America's best... and worst assassins!

Tickets are $10 - $25 and may be purchased online or on the night of the show at the door.