By Patsy Isenberg
On Friday night, Nov. 9, the talented and energetic cast of “Assassins” opened a timely musical at The Rep. With inspired direction from Michael Luberes, producing artistic director of the company, this show takes the audience on a wild ride revisiting nine presidential assassinations or attempted assassinations in U.S. history.
Time is scrambled because the assassins interact with each other and share their unique stories with the audience and each other. The setting is a broken down carnival whose proprietor welcomes each assassin and encourages them through song and dialog to carry out their missions. As the Los Angeles Times puts it, “Assassins” is “Sidesplitting and sobering in equal measure; this is the most provocative musical in years.”
Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics and collaborated with John Weidman on the story for the musical which first opened Off-Broadway in 1990. The musical was based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr. Weidman’s take on the idea of a story about assassins as people “who are generally dismissed as maniacs and misfits who have little in common with each other, and nothing in common with the rest of us” and that “while these individuals are, to say the least, peculiar—taken as a group they are particularly American.” The audience learns a little more about their backstories and personalities while watching “Assassins.”
Sondheim has said the presentation of this show isn’t “excusing or sentimentalizing the assassins… but examining the system that causes these horrors. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness” not guaranteeing happiness itself. “That’s the difference. These are people who feel they’ve been cheated of their happiness, each one in a different way,” Sondheim said.
It’s clever how the characters all gather at one broken-down place, where, as Luberes describes it, the cast members wear “cartoonish” masks during portions of their dialog and monologues. Overhead around the seating are hung stuffed animals that look like game prizes at a carnival. Big beams rise up toward the middle of the stage strung with colorful lights and above the back of the stage is a brightly lit sign reading, “Shoot the Prez.” An open second story increases the size of the stage, allowing characters to drop back while other characters interact individually or in small groups. Overall, the design worked well and was impressive and atmospheric. The scenic design was provided by Shane Cinal with lighting by Chelsie McPhilimy and sound by Matt Coggins.
The costumes were a large part of what gave the characters their unique personalities. Their looks are familiar: Everything from the dapper actor’s suit worn by the John Wilkes Booth’s character, the suburban housewife garb worn by Sara Jane Moore, and the “groovy” dresses and beads worn by Lynette “Squeaky Fromme, to the shabby worn-out Santa suit worn by the Samual Byck character. And who of a certain age can forget how Lee Harvey Oswald looked in his white t-shirt and jeans? Since the assassins were from so many different eras and each had at least one mask to wear during parts of their performances, costume designer, Loren Shaw had a big challenge. The masks were each custom made and the costumes dead on.
Orchestrations were originally created by Michael Starobin. The music in The Rep’s production consisted of keyboard, guitar, trombone, trumpet, reeds and percussion and aren’t visible to the audience. These musicians deftly accompanied the singing and sometimes action that was taking place on stage. The music director, conductor and keyboardist is Frank E. Pitts with very skillful singing from each and every member of the cast in the 11 musical numbers. “Everybody’s Got the Right” which features the whole group both opens and closes the show nicely.
The ten-member cast consisted of eight men and two women. Four of the actors played two roles. In light of controversy about The Rep losing its identity as the Flint Youth Theater amid worries that a local element would be diminished, most of the actors hail from Michigan. Only one came from out-of-state, Chris French from New York. Four of the actors attended UM-Flint for at least their undergraduate degrees, in fact, and several others have ties to Flint.
Jason Briggs, who plays Charles Guiteau who assassinated James Garfield in 1881, is about to graduate from UM-Flint, is a Flint native and currently lives in Grand Blanc. Briggs has a wonderful singing voice and command of the stage.
Chris French played the part of John Wilkes Booth. French lives in NYC and thanks Michael Luberes for bringing him “on this exciting adventure! They knew each other when they both lived in North Carolina. The Booth character plays the assumed leader of the gang of assassins. French’s “New York credits include “Simon Dawes Becomes a Planet, “The Greenwich Village Follies,” “Buioo,” and “Dawn.”
Mark Gmazel, attempted assassin of Richard Nixon, has also been in some Flint Youth Theatre productions. Gmazel was a real standout performing quite a long monologue in the show. He has a very commanding expressive voice. The monologue was hilarious, thought-provoking and heartbreaking all at the same time.
Beth Guest got her undergraduate degree at UM-Flint too. She currently lives in Rochester Hills where she stays very busy with a multitude of undertakings including working at Oakland University. Guest played two roles, Sara Jane Moore who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford and anarchist Emma Goldman. Both roles gave Guest opportunities for humor which she definitely succeeded at. These two characters were also hilarious.
Scott Anthony Joy played two roles as well. He made several appearances throughout the show as the “balladeer” tying all of the stories together with his songs. But the other important role Joy played was as the infamous and tragic character, Lee Harvey Oswald. Joy lives in Ann Arbor and has also performed in “Angels in America” for Flint Youth Theatre as well as numerous other roles. He received a BFA from Webster Conservatory.
The role of “the proprietor” was played by Paul Nelson, a U of M scholarship graduate. He’s performed in numerous productions “throughout the United States for 38 years, and recently starred as ‘Julian Marsh’ in the Broadway-Asia tour of ‘42nd Street.” Nelson’s character, like “the balladeer,” was a constant thread that ran through the musical tying all of the different pieces of character interaction together. “The Proprietor” was the “devil” sitting on the shoulder of each of them, a huckster, and basically “ran the show,” quite skillfully.
Michael Pacholski played the role of Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley in 1901. He also played David Herold, accomplice of John Wilkes Booth. Pacholski says he’s “excited to be part of the inaugural season at the Flint Rep.” He’s originally from Sterling Heights and recently earned his BFA in Musical Theatre Performance from Western Michigan University. He already has several roles played on his resume.
Mary Paige Rieffel played the role of Manson-girl, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme who made a failed attempt on the life of Gerald Ford. Rieffel really inhabited her character, sometimes humorous, often scary, and sang beautifully. Rieffel received a BFA in Theatre Performance from UM-Flint too. She’s been active with Flint Community Players and Kearsley Park Players here and worked in Ohio for Columbus Children’s Theatre for two years. She voiced the teacher in “The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On” and as Miep Gies in “The Diary of Anne Frank” for Flint Youth Theatre.
Alexander H. Trice played both Giuseppe Zangara who made an attempt on FDR, and as Sara Jane Moore’s son, Billy in a very surprising moment. Trice is British-American but based in Detroit. Trice has done a lot of directing in Michigan and Chicago. He says he’s “honored and ecstatic to make his Flint Debut in such a poignant work of musical theatre.” After this he will perform Magnus in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound.”
And finally, John Hinkley was played by Zachery Wood. This is the second time he has played that role, but “is thrilled to be a part of the inaugural season for the Flint Repertory Theatre.” Wood is a recent graduate of Saginaw Valley State University’s theatre program. He’s acted and directed in several other productions including “The Yellow Boat” (director), “Starkid’s The Trail to Oregon,” “Urinetown the Musical,” “and “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”
There’s a lot more that can be said about this colorful production–lots of poignant moments, surprises, use of lighting and special effects, laughs and scares, but better not to give any more spoilers. The Rep’s Elgood Theater is at 1220 E. Kearsley Street, Flint. The company is performing “Assassins” through Nov. 18 on Saturdays, Sundays and one more Friday at 8 p.m. There are also matinee performances at 2 p.m. on those Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for seniors and teens. There is also a “College Student Rush Rate” (with valid I.D.) one hour prior to performances for $8. The show is intended for adults and teens. “Assassins” is sponsored by Estate Funding, Bernard Stroh, IV and presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International. For more information go online to The Rep’s page for this show.
EVM theater writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at email@example.com.