Someone Tell the Story, Someone Sing the Song

Assassins, by John Weidman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Mysterium Theatre, prod. Marla Ladd, dir. John Massey.

An intelligent and engagingly homespun production of Stephen Sondheim’s all-American musical Assassins just closed this weekend at the Mysterium Theatre of Santa Ana, CA. While the show is not as polished as more elaborate, higher budgeted productions, what it lacks in sophistication it more than makes up for in thoughtfulness and well-executed vision.

John Massey’s direction borrows heavily from the 2004 revival, crafting an intimate chamber musical for Mysterium’s tiny space, a former chapel which retains architectural details such as pews and a wonderful lofty ceiling. The religious sensibility lends itself well to Assassins, giving some moments a particular resonance, such as Guiteau’s manic “glory hallelujah” cake walk to the gallows. When the Balladeer (Nicholas Palmer) sings “Charlie Guiteau / Drew a crowd to his trial, / Led them in prayer” we the audience are that praying crowd, in any production, but how much more so in an actual church? Another moment strengthened by the production site is the transformation of the Palmer from Balladeer into Lee Harvey Oswald. This moment of sheer theatricality becomes, in this space, clearly an act of conversion, the gathered assassins – led by the Proprietor (John Blaylock), a substantially augmented role in this production – ganging up on the Balladeer to persuade and force his transformation into the most infamous member of their merry band.

Many of the production’s strongest elements – this transformation, the use of a compact fairground set, and the projection of video footage of President Kennedy’s assassination onto Lee Harvey Oswald’s white T-shirt – are drawn directly from the 2004 revival. However, they are played here with clarity and insight, not just purposelessly mimicked as is too often the case. This does also mean, however, that some of the earlier production’s weak points are also on display here. The script is not flawless – Sarah Jane Moore (Sarah Meals) is not a great character, acting more as a catalyst for others than someone with motivation of her own. (In short, despite adding some wonderful comic relief, she lacks an emotional trigger, if you’ll excuse the, ahem, gun pun.) Additionally, the song “Something Just Broke” (added for the 1992 London production, and part of the licensed version since then), a heartwrenching lament for a shattered Camelot, gives the audience too much distance from and too much condemnation of the otherwise persuasive, convincingly un-monstrous assassins. However, these are problems with the musical and its script, problems which Massey worked around but did not entirely fix.

For the most part, the cast is not one of these problems. They sing complex harmonies with comparative ease, and there are some real stand-out performances, including Kayla Cavaness as Woman #1, whose voice is frankly too good for how little we get to hear it, and Duane Thomas, channeling Kevin Spacey in House of Cards as the irrepressible Charles Guiteau.

Palmer’s performance as the Balladeer is by far the show’s weakest link, and his disconnected acting is combined with a hoarse voice that sounds like an unfortunate illness. However, while the role is usually given far more weight, the Balladeer’s position as witness and interpreter of history seems diminished by the overwhelming presence of the Proprietor, played deftly by John Blaylock. Similarly, the importance of John Wilkes Booth as the “pioneer” and ringleader of the murderous company, though the role is performed with strength and finesse by Garrett Chandler, is somewhat reduced by the Proprietor’s constant presence and delicately controlling air.

Still, though the cast is sometimes uneven, and designer Haley Schwalbe’s lighting is a hit-or-miss joke at best, Massey’s strong directorial hand does shine through the rough patches. The end result has more insight, power, and focus than many technically stronger productions.