There is a palpable uneasiness in the Fabrefaction Theatre Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman’s (book) musical Assassins. The show neither celebrates, nor vilifies America’s presidential assassins (and would-be assassins), but instead insists that the seeds of such evil are within us all. Through humor and heartache, the audience is drawn to and repulsed by these individuals, which in turn forces us to examine our own demons. Like the show’s material, the Fabrefaction production is full of incredible talent, but like the concept, at times it is a little uneven.
Easily Sondheim’s most bizarre concept for a musical (and that is saying something: Sweeney Todd, The Frogs, etc.), the show carries a slightly more impactful message in the height of this vitriolic presidential campaign season. That message, that America is strong despite the misguided actions of psychotic individuals, is present in the show’s opening, but the unique character studies of these pathetic individuals, dilutes any truly patriotic undertones the creative team professes to be at the heart of the show. Instead, to appreciate the piece as a work of art, one must forget that these characters are drawn from real people (some still alive), and attempt to understand them as individuals. Otherwise, the natural tendency is to view them simply as sick, evil people (which they very well might be), and to miss the subtle skill and nuance found in the material and performances.
Many of the actors in Fabrefaction’s production, while immensely talented and exceedingly pleasing, lacked the vocal richness and fullness that is required to effectively sing a Sondheim score. The show opens on a dilapidated carnival (designed by Jeffery Martin) where the Proprietor (Shane Desmond), a slightly demented cross between the Emcee from Cabaret and Elton John, is barking for despondent individuals to come and take a shot at a president. Eventually all of the would-be assassins gather around their “pioneer,” John Wilkes Booth (Brian Clowdus). The Founder and Executive/Artistic Director of Serenbe Playhouse, Clowdus was more than adequate in the role, carrying a distinctive old-money, southern charm and confidence, however, he seemed to lack the commanding presence, especially vocally, that the imposing historical figure demanded.
Next the audience was introduced to the Balladeer, a traveling folk-musician who helps narrate the story of some of the assassins. Played by Atlanta’s omnipresent Jeremy Wood, his voice is soft and smooth, but at the Sunday matinee which I attended, he didn’t seem comfortable in the character or songs until he transformed into his other role of Lee Harvey Oswald (a staging technique first done with Neil Patrick Harris in the 2004 Roundabout Production). Over the past few years, the Suzi Award-winning Wood has proven himself to be incredibly gifted playing musical comedy, but it was a refreshing change to see him excel as John F. Kennedy’s tormented killer.
The remaining assassins are seen through a series of songs and vignettes that were mostly entertaining on their own, but lacked a continuity to unify them into a cohesive narrative. Daniel Hinton, as William McKinley’s assassin Leon Czolgosz, is one of the show’s highlights with a strong, baritone voice. Likewise, playing attempted Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon assassins Sarah Jane Moore and Sam Byck, Heidi Cline McKerley and Michael Henry Harris respectively, provide some unhinged comic relief.
Craig Waldrip, as Jodie Foster-obsessed, attempted Ronald Reagan assassin John Hinkley, duets with Fabrifaction’s founding Artistic Director Christina Hoff (would-be Ford assassin, and Manson family member, Squeaky Fromme) on easily one of Sondheim’s most beautiful love songs, “Unworthy of Your Love”; it just so happens that the song is used to justify attempted assassinations. Hoff, though extremely appealing in Fromme’s scenes with Moore, was not able to provide an appropriate balance to Waldrip’s touching vocals. Additionally, Dan Ford struggled with pitch as attempted-FDR assassin, Giuseppe Zangara. Steve Hudson was entertaining as James Garfield assassin, Charles Guiteau.
Assassins had a rather rocky road seeing the light of day. The original off-Broadway production closed quickly, despite a stellar cast, in the lead-up to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Then the long-awaited Broadway debut was shelved for three years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, before its Tony-winning run in 2004. In neither case did the producers feel that audiences would appreciate the emotional intricacies of individuals who tried to kill presidents during times of conflict.
The show as a whole was smartly and sharply directed (Justin Anderson), if not slightly overly choreographed (Becca Potter). This skillfully produced show forces the audience to assess the darkest corners of their own being by witnessing what led up to some of the darkest moments in our nation’s history. While not the company’s strongest production of the past year, Fabrefaction has again succeeded in bringing Sondheim’s darkest works to an appreciative Atlanta audience.
The Fabrefaction Theatre Company’s production of Assassins runs through November 11, 2012. For tickets call 404-876-9468 or visit their website.
– Matt Tamanini