Theater Review: ASSASSINS (Long Beach Landmark Theatre, First Congregational Church of Long Beach)

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by Lawrence Lucero on May 7, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Assassins, with music and lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, opened Off-Broadway at the Playwrights Horizon in the winter of 1990 and played seventy-three performances. Reviews were mixed to poor, applauding the music but questioning its intent and cohesiveness. The book was assessed as clumsy and unsuccessful in its attempt to walk the line between serious and funny. Jerry Zaks’ direction was praised for making his actors look good but faulted for not finding a solution for staging the confused piece. Still, Mr. Sondheim won a Drama League Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theatre for his work on the show, furthering his reputation as an artist who could take unique and challenging subjects and turn them into groundbreakingly original works in musical theater. This is the main reason why Assassins has been revived repeatedly on Broadway and regional outfits, such as the Landmark Theatre Company, which is offering a revival through May 14 at the beautiful First Congregational Church of Long Beach.

First, gratitude to the show’s director and choreographer Meghan O’Toole for taking on the challenge. Kudos to Curtis Heard and his brilliant music direction and orchestra. And a bigger hand to the cast. The Long Beach community certainly has a talented pool of singers, and this vocally superb cast sings the hell out of the score. I was especially impressed with Lisa Bode Heard (Housewife, Ensemble) who shines like a beacon in “Something Just Broke,” epitomizing a vocal quality perfectly suited to many Sondheim scores.

At the show’s opening, we see a colorful, vintage carnival midway, (a nicely functional and visually transporting unit set by Derek Jones), replete with chaser lights and a strongman high striker tower at center stage. I often forgot I was in a church. We are greeted by the carnival Proprietor (Kenneth Spears), who — in the song “Everybody’s Got the Right” — introduces us to a mélange of motley misfits, some who succeeded to kill a president, some not. Leon Czoglosz, John Hinckley, Charles Guiteau, Guiseppe Zangara, Samuel Byck, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Sarah Jane Moore are each provided mallets for their tries at the attraction (the clever mallets are an ultimately problematic substitution for the ordinarily used guns — more on that later). John Wilkes Booth is introduced, and the show begins.

The Balladeer, (a narrator/Everyman character played by the very likeable and contemporary sounding Bobby Brannon) enters to tell us Booth’s story (“The Ballad of John Booth”), both facilitating and providing a running commentary as Booth (strong singer and actor Jay Dysart), in one of the show’s most beautifully melodic segments, proclaims his reasons for assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. What follows is a scene reconvening the characters, beginning the clumsy book, in which songs illuminating their attempts and reasons to kill a president are juxtaposed with scenes for (mostly) comedic effect, culminating in a disjointed, stop-start show with some exceptionally good music, dialogue, and scenes. While there was a lack of subtlety and nuance in some songs and speeches — and in Ken Beaupre‘s sound and Jones’s light levels — there were definite standouts.

Three such occasions: When Charlie Carlos excitedly sang “How I Saved Roosevelt,” capturing with his very well-trained voice the angst and frustration — but oddly not the comedy — of the stomach-ailed Zangara; “Unworthy of Your Love,” the demented devotional duet to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson had Mark Waters as John Hinckley and Maddie Levy as “Squeaky” Fromme sounding terrific together — the result was lovely with Levy’s exceptionally strong pop sound (her “Squeaky” characterization was sharp and contemporary instead of spacy and ’70s); and Owen Lovejoy as Leon Czolgosz evoked the sad desperation of the factory laboring immigrant with terrific vocals in “The Gun Song.”

Speaking of guns, the choice to not use them is unfortunate, and their absence was a detriment. The show begins with the question in the opening number, “You wanna’ shoot a president?” Their absence in the carnival atmosphere opening and even some other show segments was entertaining and inconsequential, but in “The Gun Song” the lyrics are about a gun, its mechanics, its function, and most importantly its threat. Also, when a character’s comedy is based on schtick involving the searching for, the aiming of, and the ultimate misfiring of her gun (traditionally resulting with hoots of belly laughter), Emily Morgan as Sarah Jane Moore is faced with a tremendous disadvantage. A gun is needed. A mallet or a pointing finger does not work.

I applaud Landmark for its braveness in realizing Assassins because it is a challenge both artistically and politically. While this revival celebrates Sondheim’s work with glorious vocals, did Landmark think that using guns would promote gun violence? Whatever the reason for not using them, guns are an integral facet of both this groundbreaking, glorious, confusedly curious musical and our society (there were seven U.S.A. mass shootings just today). Clearly, the point is to have audiences be confronted with that reality while laughing through their teeth. This work is about historical characters who assassinated or attempted to assassinate the President of the United States with guns, like it or not.

photos courtesy of Long Beach Landmark Theatre

Long Beach Landmark Theatre
First Congregational Church of Long Beach (at the corner of 3rd and Cedar in downtown)
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on May 14, 2023
for tickets ($30-60), call 562.366.0085 or visit LB Landmark

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jordon Julien May 9, 2023 at 5:10 pm

Meghan O’Toole, the director/choreographer, is a also a talented opera singer. She was a wonderful Violetta in POP’s 2011 La Traviata.


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