At first glance, mounting a Broadway musical as part of a Stray Cat lineup is not what its dedicated, culture-savvy audience expects to see. To quote its production philosophies, the company wants to showcase vital, contemporary material - indie theatre that is quirky, edgy, and irreverent. Generally speaking, musical theatre is not always the route to achieving those lofty but worthy goals. But ASSASSINS is different. Sometimes described as the musical for those who don't necessarily care for musicals, here's why it works.
Under Ron May's direction with assistance from Brandon Caraco, the musical is presented as an elaborately staged revue. Scenic Designer Douglas A. Clarke's enormous wooden shooting gallery set, complete with an upper-level balcony, stretches the full width of the stage, while bunting and colorful lights reach out into the house as if both the theatre and everyone in it are all part of the carnival. As with Variety Hall skits of the past, John Weidman writes his short scenes in several different forms, with styles ranging from melodrama to comedy, to burlesque, punctuated and enhanced by Sondheim's theatrically gifted lyrics and emotionally soaring music.
The exchange between Sara Jane Moore (Libby Mueller) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (normally credited to Jasmyn Gade, but played at the last minute on Sunday's matinee by understudy Savoy Antoinette who, given the emergency circumstances, was strikingly good) is particularly funny, while Charles Guiteau's boasts of his perceived achievements (portrayed stunningly well by Nicholas Hambruch) underline the heartbreaking delusion of a man convinced of his entitlement and knows exactly who to blame for the failures. However, pinpointing a specific tone to the score is not quite so easy.
For ASSASSINS, Sondheim incorporates familiar sounds of the country's musical past, performed here by a six-member band under the direction of Steve Hilderbrand. Every new segment, every song is presented as a composition of different styles, all made appropriate for whatever moment in history we're witnessing.
At rise, we hear the familiar opening to Hail to the Chief. After a few bars, the music suddenly develops into a waltz, introducing us to the carnival setting in front of the shooting gallery. When a character called The Balladeer (Vinny Chavez) enters and comments on events, his style is early American folk; "Someone tell the story, Someone sing the song." And when John Hinckley (Anand Khalsa) and Squeaky Fromme sing the duet Unworthy of Your Love, it's accompanied by a James Taylor/Cat Stevens acoustic guitar arrangement with pleasing, melodic harmonies.
Sondheim writes lyrics in the way a playwright writes dialog. Every word has its place; every syllable has its singular note. The song will always further the action and bring you closer to a deeper understanding of the thoughts and feelings of the character singing it. With ASSASSINS, the lyrics invite you to consider the inner torment that each of the nine leading characters experience, but from a new perspective. It doesn't sympathize with them - these are characters with anguished emotions living on the edge of sanity - but it does help you understand the reasons behind their actions, no matter how skewed their logic. They believe in their entitlement, but as the Balladeer observes when summarizing John Wilkes Booth (Damon J Bolling) in song, he states, "Some called him noble, some said yellow. What he was was off his head."
Because of Covid, after such a lengthy period of dark theatres in the valley, director May has delivered to the Tempe stage in this season's final production something that maybe even he had never previously considered would be the end result. By producing such an emotionally challenging production as ASSASSINS while fleshing out performances from his well-cast ensemble (Kathleen Berger, Robert Andrews, and Robyn Foley complete the lineup) all portraying horrendous characters yet succeeding in retaining their humanity no matter how off-the-wall their nutcase values are, May has reaffirmed the value of live theatre.
The emotions you may feel towards these dark episodes in American history are the kind that reaches directly into the soul of American society. It's possible that as you exit the Tempe theatre, audience members may find personal ethics surprisingly compromised to the point where certain unspoken beliefs need to be faced and eventually questioned. With ASSASSINS, Stray Cat has truly achieved one of its intended missions. Through the kind of emotional power that only a live theatrical experience can create, the company helps us see these characters with a fresher, more human perspective, if only for a moment.