I despise musical theater, but I humbly bow at the altar of Stephen Sondheim, godhead of the realm.
Passion, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George and Company are my personal favorites, but I think Assassins is some of the finest work he's done and may be, hands down, the best musical ever written. His John Philip Sousa-inspired music and bitterly sharp lyrics are exhilarating, with John Weidman's darkly hilarious book a welcome disparity to the music's abrasive, often disconcerting tone.
In contrasting the lives and motives of several historical president-snuffers and snuffer wannabes—John Wilkes Booth, John Hinckley Jr., Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Guiteau, among others—Assassins portrays the bulk of them as pathetic buffoons on idiosyncratic personal vendettas, with little to no political insight running through their brains before they pull the trigger.
Historical statements from the assassins contradict that dismissive view, suggesting several were engaged in political acts, not just delusional self-aggrandizement. But who really expects cogent historical analysis from a musical? In a good production, Assassins is a history lesson, black comedy, entertainment and a less-than-gentle reminder that a disaffected populace doesn't have to accept political disenfranchisement or tyranny so long as it has access to weaponry.
So why is director Joanne Gordon's production so . . . well, awful?
The most egregious reason is Cal Rep's sound system. All performers are miked, but the night I saw the show, microphones were too low, not turned on, or the mix was so crapola that hearing the lyrics became nigh-on impossible the moment the orchestration kicked in.
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From the little I could make out, there were several good voices on display (Alex Boyles' socially retarded Hinckley, Debbie McLeod's addlepated Sara Jane Moore, Tyler Alessi's humorless Leon Czolgosz, and Beth Froehlich's spacey Squeaky Fromme are all lovely to listen to), but it seems pointless in the extreme to attend a musical, especially one with lyrics that are actually about something, and not be able to hear them clearly.
The very good acting from the ensemble is better served, but only because there isn't any music to overshadow it: Jeff Paul is chilling as Booth entices Oswald to make a name for himself in the Texas Book Depository, and Josh Nathan's Samuel Byck, dressed as Santa Claus and recording obscene messages to Leonard Bernstein, is disturbing, funny and painfully sad.
Danila Korogodsky's monstrous scenic design is a whole other issue: a stories-high, rickety metal jungle gym looking like something out of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome or some WWE cage fight. Insight, politics and relevancy get pitched out the window when you watch the terrified ensemble scale the sides of the wobbly structure, gripping the support beams in white-knuckled terror, fear splashed across their faces as they worry that one wrong step will send them plunging to the concrete stage below.
Assassins at Cal Rep at the Armory, 854 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, (562) 985-5526; www.calrep.org. Tues.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; also Oct. 20, 2 p.m. Through Oct. 20. $15-$20.