‘Assassins’ at Redhouse is one for the history books

The cast of ‘Assassins.’
Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski

Assassins
Who Redhouse Arts Center
Where 201 S. West St. Syracuse
When Through Oct. 13
Tickets $15-25; $10 for students
Review by Josh Austin

With the 2012 presidential election coming to its climax, The Redhouse presents a musical portrait of assassins and attempted murderers, who have all set their sights on a president, introducing a new kind of patriotic pizzazz.

Following their gruesome achievements, meet nine killers who want to make a difference, prove a point and be remembered.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical Assassins is a telling portrait that gives history books a run for its money—the books aren’t as thorough. These people who have all killed—or tried to kill—a president of the United States are examined closely, belting out why they pulled the trigger. Yet, as the audience watches the unstable men and women on stage, it’s kind of hard not to like them, or at least feel something for them.

The show opened on Broadway in 2004 after a run off-Broadway, and won five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. Sondheim paints each gritty murderer with a flamboyant tempo to boast their win. The show is a spectacle of pessimism and idealism—after all, the killers simply want social justice. The characters are in a carnival-like limbo, taunting each other and constantly acknowledging that their claim to fame is well deserved, and waiting for the next big assassin to come along and grab a gun.

The performers each a give a touching glimpse of what’s it like to be seemingly oppressed, it’s really not until they kill someone that it’s remembered they’re crazy.

As the first song “Everybody’s Has the Right” begins, the phrases “Come and kill a president” and “shoot a prez’, win a prize,” are blasted to the audience. Characters ranging from John Wilkes Booth (Chris Baron) to Samuel Byck (John Bixler) to Sara Jane Moore (Laura Austin) are introduced, not to mention six other infamous killers. The show goes on a politically-driven, bloodstained ride.

From far left: Dan Williams (Charles Guiteau), Chris Baron (John Wilkes Booth) and David Cotter (Leon Czolgosz) as three famous assassins.
Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski

It’s hard not to “like” the killers. They’re presented as comical, thinking and often intellectual beings. Austin is hilarious as Moore, who attempted to murder President Gerald Ford. Obviously nuts, she has this charming personality and, when mixed with Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Marguerite Mitchell), two giddy, girly assassins come out. Fromme is the product of Charles Manson. She also attempts, and fails, to kill Ford. The two are the only female assassins in the show, and they complement each other nicely, in addition to working well with the rest of the cast.

Although Harvey Lee Oswald (Jacob Sharf) and Booth are the two more well-known killers in the show, characters like Leon Czolgosz (David Cotter), who murdered President William McKinley, John Hinckley (Anthony Malchar), who attempted to murder President Ronald Regan out of love for Jodie Foster; Charles Guiteau (Dan Williams) who assassinated President James Garfield; Giuseppe Zangara (Brian Detlefs), who attempted to kill FDR; and Byck who attempted to murder President Richard Nixon all have important roles in the historical musical.

Byck, who battled depression and could not hold down a steady job, is suited in Santa Claus garb. Bixler delivers intense monologues, connecting each assassination and the political circus together.

Byck asks, “Who’s telling us the truth? Who’s lying?” He goes on to state, “Nothing was fixed.” Byck, like Czolgosz and Zangara, are the working men, men who want recognition and accomplishment. Byck realizes that he is “never gonna get the prize.”

Cotter presents a lovable assassin. He delivers an embittered diatribe of what it’s like to work in a bottling company and suffer with no money and left and scars to show. His character is riddled with anxiety. He is easily influenced, but he seems to a have gentle personality; he’s presented as if he’s a genuine good guy.

But, the musical almost paints all of the killers as good guys—just misunderstood.

Desires of each murderer climax within the set, designed by Tim Brown. Boxes of books make up the dusty, cramped space. It’s not until the end that the audience meets Oswald (Sharf, who also plays the Balladeer). Oswald is urged to be the next big name, the one to make a difference, to be remembered. Sharf, who belts out impressive notes as the Balladeer, delivers an afflicted, torn Oswald. Booth, who throughout the show is the glorious front man for the gaggle, needs him to do this; they all need him to kill the president. He is what keeps them in the spotlight.

Alex Levin (Proprietor) and Brian Detlefs (Guiseppe Zangara) in ‘Assassins.’
Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski

They watch Oswald make his choice in the Texas School Book Depository.

Director and Redhouse Executive Director Stephen Svoboda put together a nice ensemble that charms their way into the audience’s thoughts, though maybe not their hearts.

In the end, there is no curtain call. The audience shouldn’t clap for a band of killers, for a group that forces people to think “I remember when.” The show just ends. It leaves the audience to ponder: we can’t agree with the actions, but can we agree with the motivations?

The nine assassins did get what they wanted: notoriety. Perhaps, however, it wasn’t for the reasons they intended.

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