Review: ‘Assassins’ at Hillbarn Theatre (****)

The entire company of “Assassins” comes together to sing the finale. They slay it. Photo Credit: Tracy Martin.

by Otto Coelho

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

We are barely into 2023 and there have been an average of two mass shootings per day. One of them hit extremely close to home in Half Moon Bay just under two weeks ago. There have been those who say that this isn’t the time for a musical about the proliferation of guns and the ease with which those with personal grievances and mental issues can get them. I say—with an average of two mass shootings a day, in addition to other shootings under the four victim threshold to be called a mass shooting—when exactly would there be few enough shootings in country to stage said musical?

Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City handles these recent shootings with great sensitivity. Artistic Director Randy O’Hara appeared onstage before the show, and I was expecting his usual speech about wearing masks while inside the theatre, making donations to the theatre, and so forth. Randy added something this time. He stated that Hillbarn was aware of the recent shootings and was in no way trying to make light of them. Then he asked us to join him in a moment of silence to recognize the victims of gun violence. Short. Simple. Perfect. Then the show begins: not short, at almost two hours without intermission. Not simple. If you’re expecting simple, you don’t know Sondheim. Perfect? Nearly so. If you can handle the subject matter, without thinking it glorifies assassinations (it doesn’t), you’ll have a grand time.

I confess that while I am familiar of the music in “Assassins,” I’ve never before seen it staged. As a younger man…okay, I still do this…when telling people about shows I’ve seen with dark themes, I make the same joke to keep it light: “Sweeney Todd? It’s about a barber who loses his shpedoinkel and goes on a murderous rampage, and Mrs. Lovett gets rid of the bodies by baking them into meat pies. And you should see the tap dance number at the end!” Or, “Of Mice and Men? It’s about a very strong mentally challenged man and the friend who takes care of him, until the mentally challenged man kills a woman. The tap number is glorious!”

I never said that with age comes maturity.

So imagine my surprise and delight when the always excellent Keith Pinto as the Balladeer/Proprietor begins tap dancing in the opening number. I almost fell out of my chair. Mr. Pinto is fabulous even when he’s not tapping. His Balladeer/Proprietor is part carnival barker, part game show host, and always spot on. John Wilkes Booth, brilliantly played by Andre Amarotico, serves as inspiration to the other assassins and helps us to navigate the throughline of the piece. His is a powerful, standout performance. Nick Kendrick gives us a marvelously pensive John Hinkley, and I cannot say enough good things about the wonderful Hayley Lovgren as Sarah Jane Moore and Brigitte Losey as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, playing the only two women that have been convicted of the attempted assassination of a president. Ms. Lovgren shines comedically as Moore. We see her slide deftly from appearing to be an overwhelmed single mother to someone whose cheese is definitely sliding off her cracker, and doing it all with a glorious singing voice. I confess that I’m a fan. Ms. Losey is a standout as Fromme. We know that Fromme is a few French fries short of a happy meal, but Losey allows us inside to see what made Squeaky tick, even though all of her gears clearly did not mesh. Ted Zoldan is terrific as McKinley assassin Charles Guitreau. If I mentioned every good performer and performance, I could go on for pages. It’s a well-cast, wonderfully-performed show by all concerned.

Director Joshua Marx has staged a wonderful production. The Hillbarn isn’t your typical theatre space, but Mr. Marx uses all of its eccentricities to the show’s advantage. The choreography by Leslie Waggoner is superb. Scenic and props designer Christopher Fitzer created a space that appears to have been the result of a fever dream of Betsy Ross and a cross between a carnival and a scratch-and-dent sale at a Radio Shack, and it works perfectly. Lighting by John Bernard is spot on for what could be a difficult space. Costumes and wigs by Y. Sharon Peng are mostly terrific.  Chai Kohen and Zac Wollens edited the video that plays on multiple screens to great effect, though some images were a bit confusing.

Hillbarn Theatre has hit the mark with “Assassins.” It’s a good show with marvelous performances. Make your way to Foster City for a fine night out at the theatre.

“Assassins” continues at Hillbarn Theatre February 12. For more information, click here.


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


“Assassins” Book by John Weidman.Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Produced by  Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory. Director: Joshua Marks. Assistant Director/Choreographer: Leslie Waggoner. Music Director: Jad Bernardo. Assistant Music Director: Dara Phung. Sound Designer: Jules Indelicato. Scenic/Props Designer: Christopher Fitzer. Dramaturg: River Bermudez-Sanders. Lighting Designer: John Bernard. Dialect Coach: Rachel Marie Powers.Costume/Wigs& Make-up Designer: Y. Sharon Peng. Weapons Master (training): William Springhorn Jr. AV Consultant: Daniel Cadigan. Video Editor: Chai Kohen, Zac Wollons.


John Wilkes Booth: Andre Amarotico. Leon Czolgosz: Benjamin Ball. Lee Harvey Oswald: Julio Chavez. Samuel Byck: Andrew Cope. Giuseppe Zangara: Jesse Cortez. Emma Goldman: Angela Harrington. John Hinkley: Nick Kendrick. Lynnette “Squeaky” fromme: Brigitte Losey. Sarah jane Moore: Hayley Lovgren. Balladeer / Proprietor: Keith Pinto. Charles Guiteau: Ted Zoldan. Billy: Leo Itzkovitz, Rhys Townsager.

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