By Bob Evans
Only two weekends remain to see the Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins,” at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, presented with flair by Spinning Tree Theatre.
“Assassins,” seldom produced in the Kansas City area, brings one of Sondheim’s newer musicals to a small venue in a intimate, cozy experience that Spinning Tree does so well. Expect a classy, slick production of whatever Spinning Tree undertakes. “Assassins” continues that string of successes.
For this reviewer, “Assassins” held he audiences attention, as well as mine, from the first note through the final bows. The quirky show brings together the notorious successful and unsuccessful assassins from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinkley. (Remember him? He tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress actress, Jodie Foster.)
“Assassins” opens with a “gathering song” that brings forth the notorious group and their idea that they can become historical footnotes to gain immortality. Some find success; some fail miserably. What’s interesting is the story each assassin tells that explains their motivation and madness.
All of the infamous guerrilla warriors suffer from mental illness- but each succumbs and twists reality to fit their needs and mental instability. Some assassins justify their actions as for the betterment of the country. Some have no tangible motive but each has a story to present. The veracity of their stories might have been altered for theatrical purposes, but, combined, they create a web of inter-related spirits, hell-bent on killing.
The show opens with Jerry Jay Cranford giving a devilishly strong, dark performance as John Wilkes Booth in the days after murdering President Lincoln. Writhing in pain, Booth dictates his thoughts to his accomplice prior to being smoked out by federal officials. Then, his spirit weaves in and out of the proceedings as the musical develops.
While the entire production features some of Kansas City’s best vocal/acting talents the ensemble functions superbly in this piece. Liz Golson portrays Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a hippie follower of Charles Manson. Her performance gives the show humor and shock at the way she absolutely idolized Manson and sees him as the world’s savior. Her scenes with Julie Shaw (as disgruntled and disorganized housewife Sarah Jane Moore) is theater magic. The dynamic duo bring lots of laughs from the audience.
One of the most obscure “assassins” is a character, Samuel Byck, masterfully portrayed by Andy Penn. Even though unknown, Penn brings the character to the forefront with his characterization of the beer swilling, fast-food crazy planning to steal a plane to assassinate Nixon.
As for some other characters, Devon Barnes and Jordan Fox create a beautiful scene prior to McKinley’s death. She portrays revolutionist Emma Goldman as Fox plays Leon Czolgosz. The two make you want to know more about their story. She remains a known historic name; he’s vanished into obscurity. Both are strong, commanding performances.
Robert Hinula has a twinkle in his eye as he gives a tongue in cheek performance of a crazed man who believes he can be anything and everything he wants. He even thinks he can be an ambassador to France.
Garfield’s assassin comes to life by way of Steven Eubank. His death by electric chair is the grizzly, darker part of the show. Eubank is convincing as he shows that his character checked out of the reality realm long before his demise.
Some fairly fresh talent surfaced with the production including Daniel Eugene Paman, Michael David Allen, and Zachary York. Their voices are some to be expecting in future productions.
Lighting, projection, costumes, and other technical portions of “Assassins” added to the texture and feel of this show. Taking a big show and presenting in a small venue always allows the crews to use their creativity, and it show in the Spinning Tree production.
Sondheim is known for difficult orchestrations, and “Assassins” continues that scheme. The musical score is intricate, yet the KC orchestra managed to make the show and music fit together like a well-oiled engine. The music goes from light and airy to dark and heavy. The orchestra added depth with their handling of the music with a small group of musicians.
The cast is: Jerry Jay Cranford as John Wilkes Booth, Julie Shaw as Sarah Jane Moore, Steven Eubank as Guiseppe Zangara, Liz Golson as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Michael David Allen as The Balladeer, Devon Barnes as Emma Goldman, Connor Branson as David Herald, Jordan Fox as Leon Czolgosz, Robert J. Hingula as Charles Guiteau, Marshall Jones as Billy, Daniel Eugene Parman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Andy Penn as Samuel Byck, Tyler Rowe as John Hinkley, Zachary York as The Proprietor. The ensemble is: Devon Barnes, Connor Branson, Charity Harris, Christian Harris, Marshall Jones, Simon Schupp, Ryan Tucker, Zachery York.
The orchestra is: Gary Green, music director; Kaytee Dietrich, reeds; Brandon Wilkins, reeds, Tim Thomas, trumpet; Chris White, trombone; Joe Schoonover, banjo & guitar; Murphy Hale Smith, bass; Kyle Brown, percussion.
The production team is led by Michael Grayman-Parkhurst, director. The team is: Gary Green, music director; Kip Niven, assistant director, Nicole Jaja, lighting design; Shannon Smith-Reigner, costume design; Jeff Eubank, sound design; Gary Campbell, property design; Shannon Barondeau, projection design; Emily White, stage manager.
“Assassins” takes grizzly, gloomy characters and gives them voice and a different look. They are all villains, yet the book to the musical found humor in many parts to keep the show from being a downer. Bravo! to Sondheim for his story and music; and, kudos to Spinning Tree Theatre for their rendition. Go and enjoy. You will not be disappoionted.