Review: “Assassins” at Los Altos Stage Company (****)

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by Mark Johnson

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

You’d be hard pressed to find a musical more aggressively political than Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins.” With its razor-sharp and unflinching look at the corruption of American values, the show would be unbelievably obnoxious if it weren’t so dazzlingly brilliant in its execution. But dazzling and brilliant it is, and the show is one of the best musicals of the 1990s. Los Altos Stage Company has put together a workmanlike and highly watchable production of “Assassins” that will hopefully allow for more people to get a chance to experience this far too infrequently produced work.

“Assassins” is that rare work of satire that manages to gracefully walk the line between entertaining musical and challenging thought. Presented as a musical revue, the show gives 10 of the most famous assassins (or would be assassins) of U.S. Presidents a chance to explain themselves to the audience through a series of musical numbers and scenes, all told through a bitterly sarcastic “Shoot and Win” carnival game.

The savagely dark humor will keep you uneasily laughing throughout much of the evening, but make no mistake: you will walk away with a newfound anger for the corruption at the center of America. This is the antithesis “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. Instead of an inspiring story of a young idealistic man learning that he has the power to change things if he works hard, “Assassins” tells the story of an America where change is impossible no matter what you do. If you go, you should probably leave your American flags at home.

Stephen Sondheim’s score is brilliant. From the slightly sour bluegrass of “The Ballad of Booth” to the heartbreaking 60s style love duet “Unworthy of Your Love,” Sondheim displays an uncanny ability to switch between genres, and bolsters his already beautiful songs with a startling amount of musical complexity and lyrical wit.

Los Altos Stage Company hits all the necessary points, as director Lee Ann Payne demonstrates a depth of understanding for the material and never allows her cast to miss a single humorous moment or political point in the work’s immensely complex makeup. Ron Gasparinetti’s colorful set is appealing and used effectively.

The community cast of sixteen players is uneven and not quite up to Sondheim’s musical demands, but there are still many quality performances.. Alea Selburn is a particular standout as Lynette Fromme, ex-girlfriend of Charles Manson and would be assassin of Gerald Ford. With her surprisingly touching take on her character, she manages to make the act of assassinating a president far more emotionally compelling than one would imagine possible. Connor Smith is also effective as John W. Hinckley Jr., and Drew Jones is very strong as Lee Harvey Oswald. Ken Boswell, Todd Wright, and Chase Campbell also come off very well in their various roles.

The unevenness of this production should not stop you from going to see “Assassins.” The show is rarely produced, and, despite its flaws, the Los Altos Stage Company gets the job done. Indeed, this production is greater than the sum of its parts, which is why it merits a four star rating!

In such fearful times, especially with the election right around the corner, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to miss “Assassins.”

“Assassins” continues at The Bus Barn Theatre through September 27. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.

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“Assassins” written by John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim. Director: Lee Ann Payne. Musical Director: Katie Colman. Stage Manager: Aya Matsutomo. Scenic Designer: Ron Gasparinetti. Costume Designer: Y. Sharon Peng. Lighting Designer: Carolyn A. Foot. Sound Designer: Ken Kilen. Properties Designer: Ting-Na Wang

Cast:

Proprietor: David Murphy. Leon Czolgosz: Andy Cooperfauss. John Hinckley: Conner Smith. Charles Guiteau: Ken Boswell. Giuseppe Zangara: Anthony Stephens. Samuel Byck: Todd Wright. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme: Alea Selburn. Sara Jane Moore: Philomena Block. John Wilkes Booth: Chase Campbell. Balladeer: Brian Palac. Lee Harvey Oswald: Drew Jones. Emma Goldman: Brittney Mignano. Blaine: Jerry Rosas. Billy: Luca Paliska. Pres. Gerald Ford/Pres. James Garfield: Aaron Hurley. Housewife: Chloë Angst 

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