With a superb cast, perfect direction, and rich creative elements, Stray Cat Theatre presents a production of this not often seen musical that hits the bullseye.
While Sondheim and Weidman wrote this musical over 30 years ago, and it's fairly obvious they are laying out an alternate view of the American Dream which everyone, even an assassin, is told they have the ability and right to achieve, I have to imagine that it resonates more in the world we live in today than it did when it first premiered. While fame-seeking social media influencers who aspire to have millions of Twitter followers, and a former president who found most of his success from hosting a TV reality competition show, aren't exactly people you have to worry about using a gun to kill others, there is this sense that you can be successful by doing literally nothing, or by just doing one thing that gets the attention or notice of a lot of people. There is also the notion the musical lays out that people are inspired by others who came before them, including some of the assassins being inspired by those who attempted or succeeded in the past.
On the day I saw this production, a mass shooting suspect broadcast his killing of ten people live on Twitch from a camera he mounted on the helmet he was wearing and that video was viewed millions of times. In a manifesto he said he had been inspired by other gunmen. As Sondheim and Weidman lay out in their musical, it's pretty clear that the violence in the past, including what the nine actual people in the show did, has some influence on the ongoing violence in our current world.
Ron May's direction is perfect, with an inspired and original bit at the end that beautifully ties into the point of everything being connected to each other that Sondheim and Weidman continually project throughout the piece without having it overreach or be seemingly at odds with everything that came before. He uses balloons that are popped when a gun is fired to provide a simple but effective way of demonstrating that noise without having to resort to sound effects that could prove too realistic for some audience members. His cast of the nine assassins and the proprietor is also perfect, without a weak link among them.
While we learn a little more about some of the lesser-known individuals, it is the stories of Booth and Oswald that hold the production together, and Damon J. Bolling and Vinny Chavez are wonderful as these two well-known people. Bolling is commanding as Booth and Chavez creates two distinguished roles: the matter-of-fact Balladeer and the conflicted and questioning Oswald. The rest of the cast is just as good, with Jasmyn Gade and Libby Mueller sensational as the hilarious bickering duo of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, respectively, and Nicholas Hambruch, Jonathon Meader, and Jon Landvick all great as Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Giuseppe Zangara. As John Hinckley, Anand Khalsa shines on the duo he sings with Gade. With two excellently delivered monologues, J. Roger Wood is superb as Samuel Byck, the man who had a crazy idea to hijack a plane and land it on the White House to kill Richard Nixon. Joey Morrison is appropriately seductive as the Proprietor, and the ensemble of Kathleen Berger, Savoy Antoinette, Robert Andrews, Griffin LeBlanc, and Robyn Foley shine, with Berger having a nice command of Emma Goldman and Antoinette leading the haunting group number "Something Just Broke."
Douglas Clarke's set design is smart and uses a two-story shooting gallery setting, with "Hit" and "Miss" signs that are lite up to show whether or not one of the assassins was successful. Ashley Hohnstein's lighting design is quite effective in providing a sense of eeriness or foreboding to the darker scenes but also light and bright for the comical moments. Maci Hosler's costumes are period and character specific and Pete Bish's sound design delivers crisp and clear vocals and musical notes from the small band, which, along with the entire cast, sounds perfect under Steve Hilderbrand's wonderful music direction.