Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Theater Latté Da
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Humans, A Crack in the Sky, My Mother Has 4 Noses, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Dancing with Giants

Tyler Michaels and the Cast of Assassins
Photo by Dan Norman
In the late 1980s, when Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman announced that they were working on a musical about the varied historical figures who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate American presidents, it was viewed as one of the strangest artistic ventures ever conceived. The fruit of those ambitions, Assassins, premiered Off-Broadway at the non-profit Playwrights Horizons in 1990. As always, Sondheim's score was highly praised, but the overall musical received a range of reviews. Still, there was no question that the show had sparks of brilliance, and the legion of Sondheim fans had ensured sell-out extensions of the limited run with talks of a likely transfer to Broadway—until the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991 led to concerns that America was shifting to a patriotic mood that did not square with an entertainment, however artfully realized, about killing American presidents. The move to Broadway was off. In 2001 Roundabout Theatre embarked to finally bring Assassins to Broadway but after the attacks of September 11 those plans once again seemed, at best, imprudent. At last, in 2004, Roundabout's production was mounted, winning five Tony Awards including Best Revival. The production was not a great commercial success, closing after 101 performances, and the subject remains a tough sell, understandably.

Undaunted, Theatre Latté Da now gives us a production Assassins replete with the high caliber of performance, design, musical values, and intelligence that is the hallmark of the company's work. Assassins is another blazing success for our most reliable and indispensable producer of musical theater. Latté Da not only embraces the challenging theme of its source material, but pushes it a step further, encouraging the audience to have fun with its side-show gallery of assassins. Before the show proper begins, we are invited on stage to play carnival games operated by the cast members—along with a concession selling drinks and snack. And what games are offered to us: a balloon popping game called "Bang You Win"; a ring toss on a bottle called "Wring a Neck"; and two others—"Electro Wire," and "Knock 'Em Off". You get the idea.

The shooting gallery ambience continues as the show begins, with the Proprietor hawking his games to passersby who seem searching for something—only the games are now deadly serious. The opening number declares, with a Broadway show-stopper crescendo, that "Everybody's Got the Right" to be happy—whatever it takes to achieve the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness promised to us.

A series of vignettes depict the eight presidential assassins on record, most of them given their own musical number, with a Balladeer serving as a docent through the historical pageant. The story, he sings, depends on who tells it, as he introduces John Wilkes Booth in hiding after killing Abraham Lincoln. We know about Lincoln's assassination from the perspective of a mournful nation. Here, Booth presents his side. While not persuasive, we at least may understand the passion and moral conviction that drove Booth to his infamous deed. Though his act was monstrous, the Booth we see is very human.

Weidman's book offers historical background on the assassins along with fiction, playing with time and space by having them cross paths. Running throughout is the Balladeer's commentary and encouragement from the Proprietor. Giuseppe Zangara explains his failed effort to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt while five bystanders describe it from their vantage point, each giving themselves a vital role ("How I Saved Roosevelt"). Indeed, history depends on who tells the story. Five more assassins are given their moments in the spotlight: Charles Guiteau, the disappointed office seeker who killed James Garfield; Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who took lethal aim at William McKinley to wage war on capitalism; Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme, who in separate attacks just weeks apart, attempted to kill Gerald Ford; John Hinckley, who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan; and Samuel Byck, whose psychosis sparked an attempt to fly an airplane into the White House occupied by Richard Nixon.

All but one of the assassins join voices to offer "Another National Anthem," the inverse of the "Star Spangled Banner"'s assertion that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. That premise leads to the last, very powerful sequence: Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination of John. F. Kennedy. This, among all the incidents depicted, is the one that many audience members lived through and vividly recall. "Something Just Broke," poignantly staged, shows how the act of a single person wreaks pain and shock across a nation. Sondheim added this piece for the 1992 London production, a bow to those who felt the work was too one-sided in depicting the feelings of these criminals without reflecting the loss felt by the masses of Americans. An excellent call.

Sondheim's score is a treasure trove of beautiful melodies, on par with his best. The melodies reflect the historic period of each assassin's story, from a plucky Civil War folk song for Booth to a Burt Bacharach tinted tone for Hinckley and Fromme's duet expressing the deviant love that drives them to their deeds ("Unworthy of Your Love"): Fromme's blind devotion to Charles Manson; Hinkley's obsessive love for (then) teenage actress Jodi Foster. The lyrics are sublimely witty when wit is called for and heart-felt when expressing the pain of these lost souls. Music director Jason Hansen leads just four musicians in creating full-bodied accompaniment that do justice to Sondheim's genius.

All of the performances are superb. Tyler Michaels, as the Balladeer and Oswald, and Dieter Bierbrauer, as Booth, are given the most to do, and deliver compelling portrayals of the two best known of the killers. In "The Ballad of Booth" their beautiful voices both soar. James Detmar gives an exceptionally vivid performance as Samuel Byck, his psychosis so severe that it is hard not to pity him. Rodolfo Nieto persuasively conveys Czolgosz' fury against the capitalist system and his belief in the moral imperative of his action, aided by the power of his gorgeous voice. Sarah Ochs makes bumbling Sara Jane Moore a laughable woman whose emotional ineptitude is near lethal. Shinah Brashears' delivers Squeaky Fromme's smart-ass attitude along with her rabid need for Manson's love. Overall, there is not a weak link among this cast.

The entire package is brilliantly mounted, with breathless pacing, by director Peter Rothstein. Eli Sherlock's versatile set design comprises a series of raised platforms in a semicircle, with carnival posters depicting the targeted commander in chiefs. Alice Fredrickson's costumes and Paul Bigot's hair and wig design draw on the styles of each character's time period, exaggerated to reflect the side show motif. Lighting designer Marcus Dilliard and sound designer C. Andrew Mayer do swell work throughout, especially in realizing the moments of each death without any graphic depictions.

There have been no known assassination attempts against an American president in the 37 years since the last of those depicted in Assassins, John Hinckley. Still, America remains a violent nation, as borne out by the gruesome killing of 17 people in a South Florida high school just this week, one more in a long list of such mass slaughters. Increasingly, we see extreme violence as an expression of rage, not against the single most powerful person in the nation, but against random people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When they wrote Assassins, Sondheim and Weidman could not have anticipated the dark turns society has taken, but perhaps something in their examination of these glory-seeking murderers in our past may shed some light on our current national malady.

It will come as no surprise to those who frequent Theater Latté Da's work that they have done everything right in mounting Assassins, from casting, to staging, to design, to the splendid band. The subject matter may leave you cold, which is a reasonable response, but the artistry on stage and the questions about how warped, violent impulses can take hold of a person's very soul, raise tremendous heat, and certainly remain heavily on our minds. Not to be missed.

Assassins, through March 18, 2018, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $24.00 - $49.00. Student and Educator Rush tickets, $15.00, cash only, two tickets per valid ID one hour before curtain. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim Book: John Weidman; Director: Peter Rothstein; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Scenic Design: Eli Sherlock; Costume Design: Alice Fredrickson; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Wig and Hair Design: Paul Bigot; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Stage Manager: Amanda K. Bownam; Assistant Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Director: J. P. McLaurin.

Cast: Dieter Bierbrauer (John Wilkes Booth), Shinah Brashears (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), James Detmar (Samuel Byck), Benjamin Dutcher (Charles Guiteau), Mario Esteb (Billy), Tyler Michaels (Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald), Eric Morris (Giuseppe Zangara), Rodolfo Nieto (Leon Czolgosz), Sara Ochs (Sara Jane Moore/Emma Goldman), Matt Riehle (Proprietor), Evan Tyler Wilson (John Hinckley).

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