One of the unwritten rules of standard theatre practice used to be, "Don't point a gun onstage at the audience". Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's "Assassins" breaks that taboo with a vengeance. American fascination with guns and violence is an overdone plaint of social critics. Few artists have undertaken to point out the consequences. This show, like Sondheim and Weidman's other collaboration, "Pacific Overtures", was before its time. The success of recent revivals of each in NYC suggests that some part of the audience has caught up with them. The urge to kill and obsession with celebrity are additional flaws explored in this abstract music theatre piece, the second presentation this season by the new Metro Stage Company.
The first presidential assassin was of course John Wilkes Booth, the younger son of mad Junius Brutus Booth, a transplanted British Shakespearean, whose older son Edwin left his mark on the American stage's concept of "Hamlet:" well into the 20th century. A much less successful actor, Wilkes, as he was known, became a rabid supporter of the Southern cause, and in current parlance, joined terrorists ready to support its ends by any means. Boston Conservatory MFA Robert Case gave a solid performance in the role with a believable south'rn accent. Two lesser known but almost as decisive assassins of American presidents were Charles Giteau, a "go-getter" with delusions of grandeur usually characterized as a failed office seeker, and radical Polish workingman Leon Czolgosz. The former, who killed Garfield, was brightly played by peripetatic Bob DeVivo. Czolgosz (pronounced Chole-gosh), who killed McKinley making T.R. President, was done with looming intensity by James Tallach, a Turtle Lane stalwart last seen there as the Engineer in "Ms. Saigon". All three brought experience and authority to their roles, in this solid production thoughtfully staged by director Janet Neely
Five failed assassins play out their obsessions as well. Corey Jackson was dyspeptic Guiseppe Zangara who got the chair for shooting at F. D. R., Chris Moleski did schizophrenic Samuel Byck who planned to crash into the Nixon White House. Erin Tchoukeff and Jaclyn Campbell played Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, Charles Manson's two followers who shot at Gerald Ford. And John Dupuis was a sad-sack John Hinckley who almost got Reagan, trying to impress Jody Foster. The almost casual madness displayed by all five is one of the downsides of freedom. The last assassin, of course, was Lee Harvey Oswald effectively underplayed by David Janett, egged on by Case as Booth. Sondheim and Weidman suggest that the idea of assassination as form of personal political expression is too deeply rooted in the American psyche.
The Proprietor of the supposed shooting gallery where the action occurs was Ari Vigoda. He supplied the guns and stood in for minor characters from time to time. The BalladSinger, played by tenor Daniel Sharrocks, provided musical background for Booth and Czolgosz. Both parts are well cast, though their part in the action is one of the weaknesses in the book. The Ensemble, who added a nice texture to the show included Deb Poppel, with nice cameo as Emma Goldman opposite Czolgosz, and Kristen Huberdeau, Will Morningstar, and Natasha Warloe. Musically, the production gots firm support from Michael Kreutz at one of the keyboards conducting a six piece ensemble. Acoustically balance was only occasionally a problem in Durrell hall, which has no pit; the band was on the house floor stage right. Recently renovated, the sweep of Durrell's horseshoe balcony added to the historic feel for this production. The set, designed Case, would be more impressive if fully realized. IRNE winner John MacKenzie's lighting reflected years of experience under difficult conditions. Metro's resources are limited despite a lot of volunteer support. There's room for improvement. In this case, the material and the experienced cast carried the show which deserved a longer run.
The second local revival under consideration, "Violet", has been quietly drifting about the country since it won Drama Critics Circle Award (1998), the first Off-Broadway musical ever to do so. There's recently been more interest in Jeanine Tesori's work since her collaboration on "Caroline, or: Change" with Tony Kushner. The book was adapted by Brian Crawley, who also provided the lyrics, from a successful T.V. movie based on Doris Betts' Southern Gothic romance, "The Ugliest Pilgrim". With a company of at least 18 depending on doubling of minor roles, this show falls somewhere between a chamber music drama and a large scale musical. A production could go either way; this current one falls somewhere in between, and is most successful in its intimate moments.
The title role was sung by Kristin Shoop, seen as Evelyn Nesbit in last season's "Ragtime", which won director Bill Doscher an IRNE. Going with the abstraction of a show which takes place on a bus ride from rural North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Violet's scar, the result of an accident at age 10, had to be imagined, along with much of the setting. The first person onstage indeed is Violet's pre-accident ten year old self, played with charm by Talene Monahan, whose folky opening number, took careful attention to make out the words. Older Violet stood in the background waiting for a bus, in front of a sepia photo of an old Greyhound. Young Vi's father played by Steven Littlehale calls her away and the ensemble sets up the bus using backed benches which later double as seating in the reststop cafe or pews at the televised revival Violet's journeying to. Katherine Hetmansky's multi-purpose set using a variety of photo backdrops had some interesting configurations, but was a trifle fussy involving a lot of massive scene shifting, putting Doscher's traffic management skills to the test. A simpler approach might have been better.
The cast was a mixture of Footlight veterans and area talent. The two soldiers Violet falls in with on her trip were Flick, played by Guyana-born Samuel Martinborough and Monty, played by peripetatic local Jason Beals. Martinborough works extensively with young vocalists from Boston urban neighborhoods. Violet has a brief fling with Monty, a Vietnam-bound corporal, but is drawn to Flick, a black career sergeant. The two other men in her life are her deceased father seen in flashbacks recounting the accident and her unhappy life after, and Ian Flynn's Preacher, a televangelist healer who she believes can clear her scarred face. Flynn was Houdini in :Ragtime." When she comes to terms the disappointment both inflict, there may be a future for this bird of passage. Even a chancy one with Flick.
Several singers with special numbers stood out during the show, Dee Crawford, a Gospel singer heard in "Ragtime" and in shows for the Company Theatre and Fiddlehead, brought a big sound to the revival sequence. Cara Babich as the Music Hall Singer and Katie Picket as the Hotel Lounge Singer added interest to Violet's introduction to big-city night life in the company of her two soldiers. Most of shows numbers involve the three travelers. The number closest to musical comedy is a quintet, "The Luck of the Draw", which involves Violet beating the two Army men at poker while her father teachers young Vi to play downstage. The country music sources for many of the show's songs support the characterizations and the whole show is quite poignant. Markus Hauck, currently getting a Masters at Boscon, gets a nice sound out of his ensemble, though the drum kit is predictably too prominent at times, making it hard to hear words clearly. This show would benefit from discrete sound reinforcement, since there's a lot of interesting material in Crawley's lyrics, and Footlight's historical hall is acoustically primitive. Like "Assassins", its brief run wasn't enough to develop its potential.
Of course, the Boston's area's premiere producers of concert versions of early shows from the American musical Theatre, American Classics, only do two performances of their revivals. This spring, they brought back enough numbers from the four years of Irving Berlin's Music Box Revues (1921 - 24) to give a good idea of what these shows which depended of wit and charm more than spectacle might have been like. About half the numbers were taken from the first edition, starting with "Eight Little Notes"--the first revue only used eight girls in the chorus. There was also complex number "Dining Out", a full cast number that evolves from a romantic duo "In a Cozy Kitchenette", a Fanny Brice style parody, "I'm a Dumbbell" for a soubrette, in this case Rachel Smith, and of course, what became the Music Box's theme song, "Say it with Music", sung in its original duet form by La'Tarsha Long and Eric Bronner. The end of show featured "An Interview", where the eight chorines "interview" the author himself, which showcases excerpts for familiar tunes like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and would also allow previews of new songs. American Classics' co-founder Benjamin Sears played the interviewee. The "Finale Ultimo" immediately following then reprised various tunes from the show, some against one another.
The most ambitious piece was "A Bit o' Grand Opera" (1923), a sextet reconstructed by one of American Classics' founders, Bradford Conner. The sole text was the chorus from "Yes We Have No Bananas", with music lifted from Aida, La Boheme, and Lohengrin, and that's not the half of it. It was of course sung with precision by Joie Marshall Perry, Valerie Anastasio, Mary Ann Lanier, Bronner, Conner, and Sears. Lanier, another co-founder, also got to sing a classic from the Berlin songbook, "What'll I Do?" (1924). Bronner did "All Alone (By the Telephone)" (1923-24) with Jean Danton . He did "Dining Out" with Rebecca Lawless. The tallest of the Eight Litttle Notes, Heather Peterson got to do "I'm Looking for a Daddy Long-legs", a speciality written for Charlotte Greenwood. Peter Miller got to work with all of them in the 1923 number written for the eight "Climbing up the scale.
Revues weren't all music, so the company brought back Benchley's "Treasurer's Report", originally performed by the author, here by Bob Jolly , who directed all the sketches. Jolly also got to sing the G&S inspired "Take a Little Wife" (1922), an appropriate number for Boston's leading patter man. His squad also did Kaufman's perennial "If Men Played Cards as Women Do", and several burlesque style sketches which employed comedienneJoAnn Dickinson in various roles. A new comer to AC and Boston, she'll be a musical asset to future productions as well. And through it all, music director and co-founder Margaret Ulmer worked her usual magic on the Steinway. It should also be noted that in April N.E. Light Opera did a concert production of Romberg's "The New Moon" presented at the Tsai Center over at B.U., the Boston Conservatory revived Jerome Kern's "Roberta" (1933)--the show that made Bob Hope a Broadway star--and the HRG&S Society had a go at "Princess Ida" in the classic Radcliffe Theatre. Music Theatre fans had a chance to see a wide range works this past month, done with skill and love for the form. Those would need pop-culture nostalgia even got to see a community theatre production of "Schoolhouse Rock."