A Short Foray Away: A play of political points, ’tis the season! – Assassins at ACT

Assassins, a musical play, makes points about guns and The American Dream that does not deliver. The results are disquieted minds that seek misguided meanings and violent means for their suffering, depression and delusions – in this particular case,  through violence by assassinating or attempts to assassinate presidents of the United States. These historical and fictionalized stories meld together with a musical esprit de corps that is disturbing, dark and at times ironically, uncomfortably humorous. All this in a Steven Sondheim musical, book by John Weidman, running at Act Theater (A Contemporary Theater) through May 8th, a co-production between ACT  and the 5th Avenue Theater.

Program cover for the musical play Assassins playing at ACT Theater in collaboration with the 5th Avenue Theater. – Art by Jeff Carpenter.

As a culture, we live in an era where violence proliferates. Through this play we see how powerful and sick assassination is, and how significant this single act still is in an age of terrorism with the violent intents that created such enormous scale horrors like 9/11 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings. Sometimes looking at the small picture leads to epiphanies about the larger implications – in this case, of vigilante violence and pathological psychologies. This is a play that explores violent intents of mad minds that come to sad and scary fruition.

It is an oddball premise that is strangely right and relevant for the violent times we live in. It is a play about then and now – the implications of the gap of the one percent vs. the ninety nine, the irony of “power” (the notion that guns equalize it). It sheds light on several oddballs and oddball points of view that clearly illustrate: gun control just makes all kinds of sense – already. All this is wrapped up in words by Weidman and Sondheim music and lyrics.

Newly installed ACT Artistic Director John Langs purposefully selected this interesting project as his debut directing collaboration with the 5th Avenue Theater. It meets the mission of the 5th Avenue Theater to work through the body of Sondheim works and the co-mission of the theaters to “fulfill certain aspects of our individual artistic missions that would be difficult to accomplish outside this relationship…to bring the 5th Avenue audiences wonderful, small scale musicals…and provide ACT the opportunity to include musical theater in its programming on a regular basis,” according to Langs and David Armstrong, Executive Producer and Artistic director of the 5th Avenue.

This is a political play selected to add emphasis to an election year and start conversations about issues: gun control, mental illness, and inequality of access to whatever pursuit of happiness is entwined in each individual’s American Dream. And, how far disillusionment is played out to make a serious statement with serious consequences for a claim to fame, a revenge for promises not kept, a statement of an obsessional personal belief – all applicable to the America and the world of today.

It is a concept musical organized around a theme rather than a plot. The music runs the gamut in style and eras as Sondheim creates a musical portrait for each character’s own peculiarities, their story and time in which they lived. This leads to some interesting melodies, lyrics and songs.

Members of the company of Assassins, a co-production with The 5th Avenue Theatre Photo: Tracy Martin

The production keeps your interest with solid acting, a great set, and some interesting effects. The “Lenny Bernstein” tape making scene was full of great lines, ironies and great acting by Matt Wolfe, cast as Samuel Beck who unsuccessfully tried to crash a plane into the Nixon Whitehouse.

The culminating scene – a lead up to the assassination of John F Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald – sums up this total craziness (if craziness can be summed up at all). Louis Hobson who portrays John Wilkes Booth does an excellent job of playing the head devil’s advocate and the pinnacle of the assassin’s mentality in the scene. The entire cast lends an able hand here.

Richard Gray* (see below added bonus interview with him!) has a strangely enjoyable number playing Charles Guiteau going to the gallows for the assignation of James Garfield.

Richard Gray* as Charles Guiteau – Photo: Tracy Martin

The music is a cleaver mix of song style staples that point out eras and more ironies. In the end, it augments the play not drastically adding up to anything really musically spectacular or show stopping. The little bits if choreography are good. The ensemble singing is very good from barbershop quartet style to chorus line reprise.

The James Taylor type ballad “Unworthy of Your Love” done by Frederick Hagreen as John Hinckley, Jr and Laura Griffith as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme is particularly effective in summing up their self-esteem issues.

Two synthesizers and a percussionist make up the orchestra and amazingly pull off a lot of interesting music. The cast shows versatility and talent as individuals and as an ensemble. Sound effects are good and from the get-go set the scene. I particularly enjoyed Kendra Kassebaum as Sara Jane Moore. She sets her character, who mishandles her attempt on the life of Gerald Ford, perfectly in juxtaposition to the 70’s time period in which she lived through quirks and perfectly delivered lines.

Final Word: Assassins is definitely something different. The play has messages that resonate and enough good things going on in the production to recommend it. Parking is fairly easy. The show runs for an uninterrupted 1 hour and 45 minutes. Tickets are available, again the run is through May 8th.

*Added Bonus: An interview with Rich Gray, named one of the most creative people in Seattle 2016 by Seattle Magazine:

  1. What words of advice do you have for someone new to the Seattle theater scene…as actors, writers/composers or audiences?     

Take advantage of all this city has to offer. Actors: seek out every opportunity to perform in front of people. You never know who is watching. Directors can’t audition someone for their work ethic or for the energy they bring to a room. How well you play along with others is becoming increasingly important in casting. Writers/Composers: I would encourage you to self-produce. Get your songs sung in cabarets or online. Performers are eager and willing to perform new material. You just need to get it out there. Audiences: push your boundaries out a bit. Many friends who thought they weren’t a fan of musicals saw Parade, Violet, Assassins, American Idiot or Come From Away and had a change of heart. I have heard the same about Shakespeare productions, college productions and On the Boards. The diversity of theatrical options for audiences in Seattle is astounding. Take advantage and try something new.

2. You have a love of musical theater as an director, actor, writer and composer…what is it about musical theater that makes it your passion? You stated that your playing “Friedrich” in The Sound of Music at the age of 12 was pivotal in your career tell us a little about that and your evolution in musical theater… read more


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