Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
I have seen Assassins once before in a very good production in 1998 at Lyric Stage in Boston, but even with fading memory, this production is miles ahead of that one. The cast is strong and Chis Crawford's direction keeps the narrative crystal clear. One of the ways this is accomplished is to have portraits of the presidents involved placed around the theater. Each lights up as the story of his assassin is played out and when shot, a bell or a buzzer sounds to tell us if he was killed or not. Artistic Director Eric Davis contributes sets that revel in Americana, red and white everywhere with just a touch of blue.
Historically accurate costumes by David Covach, head of the Asolo Rep costume shop, help the audience differentiate between the periods of the events depicted. Ryan Finzelber contributes lighting that also contributes strongly to the theatricality of this production. Mr. Finzelber, who primarily works at freeFall and Urbanite Theatre, usually with brilliant results, is a great artist doing what he does. This production also borrows Michelle Hart from Asolo Rep, for wig and I suspect hair designs. Ms. Hart is another backstage artist whose work I always admire; here, she rises to great heights with the men's hair. So often actors are allowed to carry modern hair styles onto the stage and it is distracting. Each and every man on stage has hair, beards and mustaches that are totally appropriate to the character, just one of the elements that make this production so perfect.
After the musical begins with an introductory song, "Everybody's Got the Right," led by Nick Orfanella as the Proprietor, we are plunged into the story of John Wilkes Booth, played by Britt Michael Gordon and sung/narrated by Lukas Wells as the Balladeer and later Lee Harvey Oswald. Mr. Gordon first caught my attention in a mostly thankless part in Good People at American Stage, here he gets a much showier role and is excellent. His is a talent I intend to keep an eye on; hopefully, we will be able to keep him in the Tampa Bay area. Mr. Wells is also excellent, moving with a dancer's grace as the Balladeer and later showing fine acting chops as John F. Kennedy's assassin.
Pasqualino Beltempo as Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to shoot Franklin D. Roosevelt, is fine, projecting a recent immigrant's sensibility in a land that is strange to him. John Mark Jernigan, brilliantly wigged by Ms. Hart, portrays John Hinckley and bears an eerie resemblance, based on photographs I have seen. Susan Haldeman plays Sara Jane Moore who, with Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, played by Marissa Toogood, hatches a plot against President Gerald Ford that fails. Both are excellent in their roles, helped by more great wigging. Alan Mohney Jr. as Charles Guiteau totally dominates the stage in "The Ballad of Guiteau" but also works well in several ensemble pieces, such as "Gun Song." Robert Teasdale has played the older brother in The Light in the Piazza and the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance and now plays Leon Czolgosz. He is proving to be an extremely versatile artist to have around. Thomas Mothershed plays Samuel Byck, who has designs on Richard Nixon. This is primarily an acting role and he is very good.
Sara DelBeato, Eileen Lymus-Sanders, Daniel Schwab and Rand Smith form the ensemble who add color and excitement to the proceedings. Will Garrabrant, recently the Police Droid in The Pirates of Penzance, proves to be a valuable commodity, a child actor who can be understood and never becomes annoying. He is a fixture at freeFall and I'm betting that Eric Davis is hoping he never grows up.
Music director Michael Raabe leads a lively band (Irving Goldberg on bass, Burt Rushing on drums, David Tagliarini on reeds) and from the cast (Nick Orfanella on guitar and Daniel Schwab on violin and keys 2). Michael does a superb job with this score that is all over the map stylistically because of the multiple historical eras depicted.
After seeing it twice and listening to both cast albums multiple times, I still am not sure if I like Assassins or not. This production at least makes it clear to me that the authors' vision is a unified one. Audiences will have to decide for themselves, but freeFall Theatre makes a very strong case for the piece with an outstanding production.
freeFall Theatre Company presents Assassins through November 6, 2016, at 6099 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg. For ticket and performance information, visit www.freefalltheatre.com.
Cast (in alphabetical order):
Director: Chris Crawford