"EVERYBODY'S GOT THE RIGHT TO SOME SUNSHINE, IF NOT THE SUN THEN MAYBE ONE OF ITS BEAMS . . ."
Yesterday at the Actor’s Charitable Theater production of Stephen Sondheim/Jerome Weidman musical “Assassins” in Tuscaloosa I ended up with a whole basket of sunbeams. What a wonderful show! That I was expecting. What I didn’t expect was the quality of the production at all levels.
If anything, the ACT production tops it.
I had been a bit nervous when I heard that the same actor would be playing both the Balladeer (a Greek or Shakespearean chorus, if you will, or possibly the personification of the best part of the American nature) and Lee Harvey Oswald. Doubling can have meaning. It was brilliant in the original Broadway production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” to have the Big Bad Wolf played by the same actor who played Price Charming. And there is still a lot of discussion out there about the meaning of Lear’s daughter Cordelia and Lear’s Fool possibly being played by the same actor.
In the UA production, the actor portraying Oswald was seated among the audience. When it was time for him to make his appearance toward the end of the play, he rose from his seat and mounted the stage. It made my hair (such that I had) stand on end. Oswald came from among us!
In a way the doubling of Balladeer and Oswald in this production had a similar effect. Oswald comes from America.
The Balladeer is a singing role (probably having more singing time than any other role in the work), and Oswald is not. Greensboro’s own Matt Cornelson (I think we can claim him now) performed remarkably in both roles. I have to single out the great job that he and Royce Garrison did with “The Ballad of Booth.” The song of justification of his actions that John Wilkes Booth (Garrison) sings may be the most soaringly beautiful in the play (and way up there in all of Sondheim). Remarkably the song uses not just the N word but the NL word as well, set beautifully to the music. The Balladeer here serves (not the only time in the work) as commentator and counterpoint to Booth’s message.
Yes, this is a musical with rough language. Not for the queasy or faint of heart. Lots of use of the F and the S and the P words, and lots of gunshots. When I was waiting in line a family of four showed up, with a teenage son and a younger son perhaps 8 or 9. One of the clerks at Eat My Beats (where the production was performed) asked the father if he knew about the language. My sons can deal with it. But when a member of the play’s production team realized they were in line, he made certain the father was totally aware of the extent of the language. The father elected to leave with his family. (Actually I think the kids would have loved the play, and I was hoping they would stay).
Sondheim got a lot of flak when “Sweeney Todd” opened in New York because of the line “There’s a hole in the world like a great big pit And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit And it goes by the name of London.” Those resistant to the incredible beauties of that work claimed that Sondheim’s musical said that the audience was shit. No. In fact, you could claim that the play as a whole argues otherwise.
“Assassins” has been accused of glorifying killers of presidents. No. The play argues otherwise
It’s a strange play. Not realistic, obviously. You really didn’t have John Wilkes Booth in the Texas Book Depository encouraging Lee Harvey Oswald. It is composed in somewhat discrete episodes, some using music, some using only the spoken word. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises to me in this production is how well the non-musical sections worked. A great bunch of actors, obviously, but I believe that a lot of credit must be extended to director Joey Lay.
It is full of surprises. There is a love duet, “I Am Not Worthy of Your Love.” It is sung by John Hinckley and Squeaky Frommel, he to Jodi Foster and she to Charles Manson. There is a barbershop quartet about the making and firing of guns (no, don’t get your tails about of joint: it’s about the misuse of guns). Sondheim sets to music a poem written by one of the killers. He also makes wonderful use of a John Phillip Sousa march.
It’s a wonderful show. Thank you, ACT.
Oh, by the way, ACT: why not a production of the Galt McDermot/Bill Dumaresq musical “The Human Comedy,” based on the William Saroyan movie of the same name? It’s my favorite musical of all time outside of Sondheim, and trust me, you won’t have to turn away families with children.