‘Assassins’ at The Center Stage at Catholic University by David Friscic

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The Center Stage production of Stephen Sondheim’s dark and subversive musical Assassins, now playing at Catholic University, is a valiant attempt but just misses the mark. A Sondheim work is often challenging to produce with even the most professional equity theatre troupes and Assassins is one of the most challenging shows in Sondheim’s canon. A show such as Assassins demands a unified stylistic approach, but there is no seeming overall directorial approach on display here by Director Paul Scanlan. Usually clocking in at ninety minutes, this show ran for two hours and the energy often flagged as one scene after another listlessly dragged on.

Performers here often tried their best in these circumstances. Vinny Kempski (John Wilkes Booth) and Christian Montgomery (Samuel Byck) gave very earnest and heartfelt performances but did not quite capture the torment and belligerence of their characters. Joe Binck was in command of the role of The Balladeer but never quite captured the isolation of the character of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Standouts in the cast were Brendan McMahon (Leon Czolgosz), Luke Garrison (Guiseppe Zangara), Emily Lentz (Sara Jane Moore) and – especially – Katie Furtado (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme). The group of misfits in this piece should be portrayed as trapped  in their own private hells, but this is never successfully conveyed.

Choreography by Lance Hayes was not very fluid but at least full use of the stage was utilized. Set Design by Ryan George was striking and creative with the two -piece band set nicely on the high point of one of the ends of the playing area.   Music Director KC Beauregard worked hard to get a full sound from the band but more accompaniment is really needed to give service to Sondheim’s score. Standout musical numbers were “How I Saved Roosevelt” and “Unworthy of Your Love.” Occasionally, important lyrics from the score were unintelligible.

In today’s political climate the unveiling at the end of a huge visual of President Obama and Candidate Romney was particularly tasteless and offensive – it is hard to believe that the Sondheim would have approved this since Sondheim is a known stickler for details and accuracy.

The whole point of Assassins is to portray the assassins and would-be-assassins of historical record – thus we have John Wilkes Booth portrayed and a picture of Abraham  Lincoln on the wall, John Hinckley and a picture of Ronald Reagan on the wall, and so forth. To place a picture of Obama and Romney on the wall is not accurate and also incendiary in the worst possible way.

The Director’s note in the program is faulty in logic as well, as the Director speaks of the assassins and would-be-assassins: “Yes, they went to extremes. Yes, their actions were terrible. They, however, made a statement, while we have the audacity to sit at our computers posting out-of-context sound bites from one candidate to the next on Twitter and Facebook, never truly considering that the same face might be putting on different masks.”

If the enthusiasm of these committed, young actors would have been corralled into a more cohesive production and vision this Assassins would have been a winner but, as is, it is rewarding for only the most devoted and patient Sondheim fan.

There is one more performance of Assassins today, Sunday, November 4th at 2 PM in the Caldwell Auditorium of the Catholic University of America  in the The Edward J. Pryzbyla Center – “The Pryz.” Tickets can be purchased at ‘The Pryz’ before the performance.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Couldn’t disagree more! Had the pleasure of seeing this Saturday night. Where is justification in your statements? Can you elaborate how directors note logic is “faulty”? Seems to me you are looking at this show in comparison to Its Broadway version

  2. Very much disagree with your review. Having never seen “Assassins”, i was impressed with the direction, casting and performance of this piece. It was a very engaging night of theater which was, in my opinion, almost of the quality of a professional production. It is often difficult to evaluate a new production of something you have seen before but as a reviewer, one would hope you would’ve been more open minded.

  3. You really, really missed the mark here. Allow me to offer some perspective.

    Let me first just say that, discipline-wise, Assassins boasts some of the finest moment-to-moment work I’ve ever seen in a college production, and the attention to characterized detail was astonishing.

    The reviewer has a right to be offended and shocked by the reveal at the end, just as I’m sure many were shocked when Joe Calarco’s brilliant 2006 production at Signature ended with the little boy taking the final shot. I thought the reveal of our potential next president and the final shot coming from the audience sent a similarly chilling message. As for “details and accuracy”, isn’t the whole point of the musical that historical legacies seek to perpetuate themselves? That ending was completely on-message with the final third of the play.

    Assassins is meant to be a show of attempted understanding for history’s villains, and the play cannot succeed without that element, which Scanlan and company brought in spades.

    I admire the effort Mr. Friscic makes in his attempt to demonstrate expertise on this subject, but perhaps more “attention must be paid” to the details as he wishes to make a name in dramatic criticism. For now, this just reads as an attempt to assert that “Sondheim is hard!” and “student productions think they’re so provocative and cool but they’re NOT, that’s just tasteless!”

    In reality, the concept, execution, and after-effect were fantastic interpretations of this difficult work, and the CUA students should be very proud of the incredible work they’ve done.

    And yes, Mr. Friscic, Sondheim is hard. I learned that in high school, too.

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