Chicago Theatre Review
Shoot to Kill
Assassins – Kokandy Productions
Has our society become so insensitive to the sight of assault weapons and the frequency of gun violence that audiences are able to enjoy watching men and women taking pot shots at our country’s leaders? Can an all-singing, all-dancing theatrical production, rife with rifles, stark drama and dark humor be the entertainment of tomorrow?
Stephen Sondheim defends his 1990 Off-Broadway cult musical (later revised and revived at Broadway’s Roundabout Theater in 2004), not by apologizing for its volatile subject matter, but by claiming that there’s no longer anything that’s sacred when it comes to creating a musical. He cites letters of outrage written to Rodgers & Hammerstein after “South Pacific” depicted interracial marriage as part of its plot. By today’s standards such controversy sounds ridiculous, but in 1949 it raised a lot of eyebrows.
Then again, the diverse subjects that are the focus of other Sondheim musicals include a revengeful barber slitting his customers’s throats while his lady friend bakes them into pies; a fictionalized biography of Impressionist painter Georges Seurat that claims “art isn’t easy; the opening of Western trade with Japan, as told from the Japanese point of view; a musical based on the comedies of ancient Roman playwright, Plautus. For this composer, truly nothing is off limits.
Set in a deserted carnival midway that features a shooting gallery, collaborator John Weidman based his script upon whatever sketchy information he could discover about those individuals who’ve attempted (and, in some cases, succeeded) to assassinate the President of the United States. Sondheim’s musical numbers, while not particularly hummable, offer the flavor of each assassins’s era. Through a series of short scenes and 11 songs this revue, filled with unexpected, dark humor and populated by a cast of smiling, demented, glassy-eyed antiheroes, is a trip to a Twilight Zone where assassins from both the 19th and 20th centuries dwell together. Often shocking, sometimes poignant and surprisingly funny at unexpected moments, Sondheim’s musical claims that these misfits of society all share the same hopes and aspirations as their Presidential victims. Theirs is just a different attempt to achieve the American Dream. These losers, who could never succeed in the conventional manner, find violence a quick way to earn instant fame and secure a place in history.
Rachel Edward Harvith has directed this quirky theatrical piece with spirit and style. As she writes in her Director’s Notes, too often today we hear the words, “a lone gunman opened fire.” What usually follows is a litany of testimonies by friends, colleagues and experts attempting to analyze the gunman’s behavior and motives. But, as Ms. Harvith reminds us, “There’s a danger in dismissing people whose actions we don’t fully understand.” The director has chosen to portray these villainous underdogs with humanity, and in this she completely succeeds.
Kory Danielson provides musical direction that’s sharp, driving and with particular attention to enunciation. Mr. Danielson also conducts the show’s talented seven-member orchestra with vigor and nuance, although sometimes there’s a tendency to drown out the actors. Mike Ford has choreographed this 90-minute revue employing as many types of movement and dance as there are musical styles in Sondheim’s score. The technical team of Zachary Gipson and Brandon Wardell (with assistance by Cassandra Green) provide an atmospheric, multilevel setting with shadowy illumination lighting a world where these apparitions can lurk. Kate Setzer Kamphausen has costumed each character appropriate to his time period, and Mikey Moran has supplied a soundtrack of effects unique to each firearm.
Ms. Harvith’s cast is uniformly strong and diversely talented. While Cole Doman looks a bit young for the role, his vocal expertise makes his Balladeer memorable; and Jeff Meyer is terrific as the Proprietor, a perverse kind of carnival barker distributing Prop Master Johnny Buransky’s period perfect firearms to each would-be assassin.
Eric Lindahl brilliantly captures actor John Wilkes Booth’s inner turmoil with his rich baritone. Neala Barron is alternately frightening and hilarious as Sara Jane Moore, and Allison Hendrix truly stands out as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. The two women pair up for a two especially funny scenes, one involving a barrel of KFC and a pair of pistols, the other a botched effort to kill President Ford. Teaming up with the gifted Michael Potsic as a terrifying John Hinckley, Ms. Hendrix shares the duet, “Unworthy of Your Love,” delivered to Jodi Foster and Charles Manson, respectively.
Additional contribution is provided by a superb Greg Foster as Charles Guiteau, the man-who-would-be French Ambassador, resulting in President Garfield’s assassination. As Giuseppe Zangara, Alex Heika masterfully joins forces with the Proprietor for their “Man Who Saved Roosevelt,” reliving the immigrant’s failed attempt to assassinate the President (but accidentally killing Chicago Mayor Cermak, instead.) Leon Czolgosz, whose barbershop quartet-like “The Gun Song” with Moore, Booth and Guiteau, reverberates as he kills President McKinley. Jason Richards plays a very angry Samuel Byck who sends recorded missives to famous men, like Leonard Bernstein, and is determined to kill President Nixon by crashing a 747 into the White House.
However, the assassination that hits home for most audiences is executed by Nathan Gardner’s beautifully played, eerie Lee Harvey Oswald. Lurking in the shadows throughout the play, Gardner remains unobtrusive watching and listening carefully to the other assassins until they convince him to kill President Kennedy. Upon the completion of the deed, the musical ends as it opens with the proclamation that “Everybody’s Got the Right (to be happy),” and the cast readies their guns for one final assassination aimed at the audience.
Sondheim’s musical clearly isn’t for everyone. In spite of the abundance of dark humor, it’s subject matter is often difficult to witness. The idea that murder is just a quick way to achieve fame can be hard to swallow. However, as in past productions, this young company once again demonstrates that they’re a group to watch, always willing to take chances and push the envelope. This production, however difficult the premise is to accept, is a slickly produced, finely directed, acted and sung show that audiences won’t soon forget.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 13-July 20 by Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Theater Wit box office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org/boxoffice.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.