San Diego Theater Review: ASSASSINS (Wildsong Productions in Ocean Beach)

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by Milo Shapiro on September 18, 2022

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


At the very least, you have to give credit for anyone coming up with this bizarre idea: A musical about the nine people – from John Wilkes Booth in 1865 to John Hinckley in 1981 − who have successfully assassinated — or tried to assassinate — an American president. And not just about them but about their spirits meeting and interacting. So does it work? At best, the answer is sometimes.

Two narrators (Shaun Lim and Hunter Brown) are utilized to help the would-be killers dig into their thoughts for us as we learn their tales. While this succeeds in advancing the story, they are sometimes slowed down by Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics. Some of the more powerful scenes in John Weidman’s book (based on an original concept by Charles Gilbert Jr.) are the ones that don’t use music at all because they move along better.

Johnson does a reasonably good job helping us know the facts around Presidents McKinley and Garfield and their shooters; he knows that none of us were alive then and that those stories aren’t as generally known as, say, John Wilkes Booth. But one of the factors that hurts the script is that, as he moves on to Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, there seems to be more presumed audience knowledge of these crimes.

Indeed, most theatergoing audiences in 1990, when Assassins debuted, probably knew these stories. But this reviewer, born in 1965, had to Google “Samuel Byck” after the show to find out anything about his fascinating 1974 life attempt on Richard Nixon. And, later, actor Matt Sutton singing to a photo of “Jodie” probably meant nothing to millennials who’ve never seen a Jodie Foster movie, let alone know the name John Hinckley. For those intending to catch the show, a little research beforehand on each “character” might add to the enjoyment of the program.

The intermission-free 100 minutes is uneven, dragging at times but then sometimes becoming fascinating. It is at its best in the sections on Booth (with Michael Harrison exuding creepiness) and Byck. While the script leaves Byck’s intentions rather vague, Will Corkery beautifully, boldly, and even comedically conveys the man walking the line of sanity.

For much of the time in the second half, we can find ourselves wondering, “Is this going anywhere or are we just bouncing through eight short stories?” Fortunately, an interesting twist comes in the last fifteen minutes that makes the rest of the show come together more effectively.

One logistical note is that there is a long catwalk that splits the audience in two. Accordingly, the chairs are all at 45 degree angles to be able to view the catwalk easily. This does work for those times it is in use, but as 90% of the show is on the main stage, the whole audience is twisting their bodies to watch most of the show for a fairly long time. It would have been better to have to turn ninety degrees occasionally so we could watch the rest face-on.

Director Amanda Blair takes on a tremendous task in this large-scale production. Once again, Wildsong, especially for such a young company, does an excellent job of making use of their small space. While voice quality varies, there are some strong singers in the large cast. That said, at the risk of daring not to praise everything Sondheim does, the discordant melodies and cryptic lyrics seem to be a challenge that Wildsong successfully rises to rather than being a pleasure to hear overall.

Ms. Blair says in the program notes, “My wish for this production is that, if anything, you walk away with a better understanding and respect for those who with different viewpoints than your own. That the next time something comes up it doesn’t align with your beliefs, you won’t immediately put up your dukes. That though you don’t agree, you don’t immediately want to shut down the other’s opinion. That you take the time to listen.” While there is certainly wisdom is how much more we need to listen than we do, her meaning as it related to this show left me scratching my head. We should be better listeners to people who might turn out to be assassins, perhaps? Though a little baffled by her wish, the show is worth a try and will likely lead to interesting discussion afterward … and a few trips to Wikipedia to learn more.

photos by Brooke Aliceon McDougal

Wildsong Productions
OB Playhouse (in Ocean Beach), 4944 Newport Ave in San Diego
Sep 16-18 & 22-24 at 8pm; Sep 25 at 2pm.
ends on Sept 25, 2022
for tickets, visit Wildsong

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