Incarnating the falling action of Stephen Sondheim’s musical story Assassins, Lee Ernst finally reveals himself unmistakably through an amazingly new gravely voice, taking himself up a notch from his deliberately muted early scenes. He’s ranting in a Santa suit about why the White House deserves an unexpected guest arriving in a Boeing 747. In his crescendo, coincidentally, Ernst gets to roll with a Sondheim reference to worn-down American dream-seeker Willy Lowman from Death of a Salesman.
Penning Assassin’s in 1991, an absurdist reconstitution of America’s most harrowing and somber historical events, John Weidman and Sondheim remembered a failed plane hijacking aimed at President Nixon’s Oval Office in 1974. How did our intelligence community fail to see the legitimate threat that a sufficiently conniving crazy person in an aircraft could be. Exactly 10 years from Assassins’ publishing, the entire world found out.
A Few Good Thoughts
The Milwaukee Reparatory Theatre has a run of Assassins opening its Fall 2012 season. What contributes more to a good discussion than timely commentary? With Assassins, Sondheim fixed history’s lens on the people who have personified the pinnacle of disillusionment and aimed it square on the President. Yep that guy, the man with the spoon stirring the pot, doling out meat and potatoes to some and the salty broth to others, whatever his discerning eye decides.
Sondheim helps us hear the singing voice of the people who couldn’t push their way in line, follow directions on how to get a bowl, or even get in the mess hall, and their praises of exercising the 2nd Amendment as a fall back plan. As we see in Assassins, it’s mostly personal rather than political, a moral of Sondheim’s story still ringing clear as a bell 20 years later in the current Presidential election season.
The World on Stage
As we’ve come to expect, Clements utterly transforms his set and players, to create that magical place that is live theater. Brian Stills (Giuseppe Zangara), Chris Peluso (Lee Harvey Oswald), Sarah Litzsinger (“Squeaky” Fromme), and Evan Herrington (John Hinckley), with notable presence, bring the tortured souls of would be, and successful, assassins into the auditorium. They twirl around a concentric dual-carousel stage in search of their unwitting targets, Presidential and otherwise.
Having just enough time enough time before their brushes with demises, James Garfield and Gerald Ford make memorable cameos played by Ray Jivoff and Jonathan Altman, Ford being the luckier of the two. Luke Brotherhood (Billy) makes several appearances, as a kid, subtly contrasted with Jonathan Gillard Daly’s role as Proprietor of the world fair carnival quiz show where the musical drums up the past.
Emma Goldman (Melissa Joy Hart) appears, in a markedly humane moment of the story, while being futilely courted by Leon Czolgosz (Steve French) before he offs President McKinley. J.R. Yancher gives a fittingly aloof version of Secretary of State James Blaine bearing witness to Garfield taking lead. Mark Price’s performance as Garfield’s assassin worked really well, as his exaggerated gestures accentuated the edges of Charles Guiteau’s character, forming it into a fitting caricature.
Caroline O’Conner, in her role as Sarah Jane Moore, all play long vigorously working herself up to going after Jerry Ford, basically caught fire while wearing a polyester blend pant suit from the time she stepped on stage, incinerating the New Jersey Turn-Pike Nancy type-cast until nothing was left but ashes.
Master of Ministry
Through Adam Monley’s performance, John Wilkes Booth likably turns into an effete dandy capable of significant vanity-driven wickedness, a rare combination of Jack Merridew, Jack Sparrow and Prince John from Disney’s Robin Hood. Booth centers himself as the ring leader of this historical lineup of notorious suspects.
Subject to Booth’s insidious instigation, all of the assassins have just the right buttons pushed to unlock their innermost superior sore loser. They play carries on with remarkable levity as one by one each of our nation’s darkest hours are relived. In some cases, these moments threaten the overall artistry of the play.
In other scenes, the production loses opportunities to really capture the intrigue of such grand events as Presidential assassinations by relying too heavily on multimedia effects, rather than keeping the live theatre special effects interacting with the players. Shortcomings aside, the play’s inherent asymmetry and non-linearity overbear the acting in some places, however not enough to completely throw the show out of orbit.
More than the Rest
Clement’s deploys a chorus to bolster the performance of the ensemble, sung by Hart, Jivoff, Yancher, Altman, Alex Kelper and Kelly Faulkner. Steve French delivered a moving baritone during the Ballad of Czolgosz worth mentioning. The intern ensemble did well in their supporting roles played by Emily Berman, Lamar Jefferson, Toni Martin, Jessi Noel, Tyrone Phillips, Jess Pritchard, Jamie Rezanour, Teddy Spencer, Bri Sudia, Trequon Tate and Mercedes White.
The Real Miss
One event in history conspicuously absent in Sondheim’s musical, involves the ever famous Theodore Roosevelt. While campaigning for President on the Bull Moose Party ticket on October 14, 1912, Roosevelt left the Gilpatrick Hotel to deliver a stump speech. He carried in his coat pocket his wire rimmed glasses, a tough piece of buffalo hide gum, and his 50 page speech manuscript.
A deranged bartender from New York City named John Schrank followed Teddy Roosevelt to the Mid-west, under the pretense that he was hunting for a bounty of Squab. Schrank approached Roosevelt and shot him. As fate would see fit, the pages of Roosevelt’s long winded speech and steel case for his glasses slowed the bullet’s entry into his chest.
Against the doctor’s orders, a wounded Roosevelt insisted that he should deliver the speech to spite the attempt on his life. He did so with blood seeping through his shirt at the Milwaukee Auditorium. On the original footprint of the the former Gilpatrick stands a hotel to this day, The Hyatt. Inside the the Hyatt’s eastern entrance vestibule, on 3rd Street, a historic marker enshrines the near miss.
Technically, Teddy Roosevelt was running for Office again, after becoming the youngest President in our nation’s history when President McKinley was assassinated in 1901. During his next 8 years of Presidency, Roosevelt successfully founded the Progressive Movement, a concerted push to make sure that big corporations didn’t trample the American public. Come on Sondheim that should be close enough!
Assassins blazes its barrels onstage until October 7th at The Rep, with audio described performance Tuesday September 11th, cast talk back on Thursday on September 13th, and lunch matinee and talk back with props director Jim Guy on September 26th.