Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Manatee Players fields a cast full of some of the best community theater talent in the area, and all are operating at the top of their game. Brian Chun takes the role of John Wilkes Booth, granddaddy of all the people who assassinated or attempted to assassinate U.S. presidents. Mr. Chun is always noted for his very strong singing, but in this role he shows acting chops I didn't know he had. Booth's story is told in "The Ballad of Booth" with the help of Maxwell C. Bolton as Balladeer and later Lee Harvey Oswald. Bolton is an excellent singer, putting over his jaunty narrative with great pizzazz, but he doesn't quite capture the man-child that was Oswald.
The always dependable Rodd Dyer dominates the stage as Charles J. Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield. Corey Woomert is Leon Czolgosz, who shot President McKinley, who died 8 days later. He is excellent in his scene with Emma Goldman and later hauntingly leads off "The Gun Song." This performance continues his growth into a reliable leading performer. Sarah Cassidy is Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme of Charles Manson fame and Michelle Anaya is dead-on as Sarah Jane Moore, who joins her in an attempt on the life of President Gerald Ford. Rik Robertson as John Hinckley joins Ms. Cassidy in "I Am Unworthy of Your Love," one of the best known songs in the score.
Alex Beach is Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to shoot President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which is kind of a thankless part. Michael Bajjaly plays the primarily acting role of Samuel Byck, a tire salesman and cab driver who had delusions of killing President Richard Nixon. Jason Moore sings very strongly as The Proprietor, who pulls a lot of the various pieces together from time to time. John Andruzzi, Catherine Burke, Ricardo Campbell, Eli Gilbert, Kyle Ann Lacertosa, and Jordan Obbema form the ensemble.
Director/choreographer Rick Kerby has done a stupendous job with this production. It represents Manatee Players at the very top of their game, and I hope audiences respond to that, because Assassins is not the most audience friendly show.
Music direction, by William Coleman, and the band are excellent. Sondheim is never an easy sing and every single member of the cast does an outstanding job, vocally. Scenic design by Ken Mooney provides a set of open arches, lit with cheep carnival strings of lights, perfectly capturing the mood Weidman and Sondheim are after and providing very workable playing spaces. Costumes by Becky Evans are effective, delineating the various periods that these characters inhabited. Lighting design by Joseph Oshry is the strongest technical element, always setting the perfect mood for a kaleidoscope of dramatic scenes but never calling attention to itself. I recently praised Mr. Oshry for the continued excellence of all his work in multiple theaters, but I think this production may be his most stunning accomplishment yet. Sound design by Tom Sell and Caleb Carrier allows everything to be heard clearly, and this is a huge compliment after the first couple of years at Manatee Performing Arts Center when this was decidedly not the norm.
freeFall's production of Assassins, directed by Chris Crawford, is taut, the whole thing playing like a tightly tuned piano wire. The result is that their version seems to be about the violence that guns can wreak. (Mr. Crawford makes his home in Orlando, sight of a horrific act of violence in May of this year, so perhaps that plays into this.) At Manatee Players, Assassins is played a little more for the story of its characters and I was able to concentrate more on the interactions between them and the reasons for their actions. Both are effective, just very different. What the two versions suggested is that this may be one of Stephen Sondheim's most effective musicals, able to be interpreted in very different ways.
What a huge treat for me, to be able to see Assassins not once but back to back; both versions are so worthy of audience's attentions.
Manatee Players presents Assassins through November 13, 2016, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton; 941-748-0111, manateeplayers.com.
Directed and Choreographed by Rick Kerby