Review: Patriots and Scoundrels: Dominion Stage Presents a Biting ‘Assassins’

Written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman and directed by Melissa Jo York-Tilley, this production of the musical Assassins comes to Dominion Stage at one of the most politically tumultuous times in recent history. The musical, which highlights the lives of nine people who assassinated or attempted to assassinate a U.S. president, engages the audience with a dark humor which reveals the struggles and tedium of the average American’s life.

Michael Gale (Lee Harvey Oswald) and Jonathan Cagle-Mulberg (John Wilkes Booth). Photo by Matthew Randall.
Michael Gale (Lee Harvey Oswald) and Jonathan Cagle-Mulberg (John Wilkes Booth). Photo by Matthew Randall.

From the moment you enter the venue, you are met with the costumed characters which populate the narrative. The pre-show entertainment continues as ensemble members (including Rebecca Cooley, Morgan DeHart, Abbie Desrosiers, Becca Harney, Stephanie Chu Rudden, Oscar Mario Soto, Jr., and Lyle Black Smythers) perform circus tricks and interact with the audience as they take their seats.

James Maxted, as The Proprietor, opens the show with an energetic “Everybody’s Got the Right.” Then we move to the first, and perhaps most infamous assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Jonathan Cagle-Mulburg plays the disgruntled Booth. While the musical seeks to illuminate the psyche of people like Booth, it never strays too far into maudlin sympathy for, or dismissal of, their crimes.

We move on from the Lincoln era to Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian-American anarchist who killed the mayor of Chicago in an attempt of Franklin Roosevelt’s life. The historical accuracy of this account is stretched for dramatic purposes, but Eric Verchot turns in a believable performance as Zangara, and we understand the character’s motivation.

Peter Curtain’s projection of anger at the system he was born into as a Polish immigrant is apparent in his performance as Leon Czolgosz, another anarchist, who assassinated William McKinley. Rebecca Cooley is a convincing Emma Goldman, whom Czolgosz had a fixation on.

Colleen Robinson and Sarah Elizabeth Edwards turn in admirable performances as the housewife Sara Jane Moore and the waifish Charles Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Both were would-be assassins of Gerald Ford.

One of the highlights of this Assassins was, “Unworthy of Your Love,” John Hinckley, Jr., played here by a mousy and bespectacled Mike Rudden. This ballad is a representation of Hickley’s obsession with Jodie Foster prior to his foiled attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life. Lynette Fromme also appears in this number. Sarah Elizabeth Edwards shines during her verses, which highlight the twisted way in which she related to Charles Manson.

Peter Curtin (Leon Czolgosz) and Rebecca Cooley (Emma Goldman). Photo by Matthew Randall.
Peter Curtin (Leon Czolgosz) and Rebecca Cooley (Emma Goldman). Photo by Matthew Randall.

Another performance which stood out was Aaron Ware’s portrayal of huckster and evangelist Charles J. Guiteau, whose actual poem— which Guiteau composed for his execution— is included in the “The Ballad of Guiteau.”

Jay Tilley plays Samuel Byck with a flair that is both sleazy and sad. His failed attempt of Richard Nixon’s life leads into the “Another National Anthem” wherein of the larger surprises of the musical is revealed.

Michael Gale is the Balladeer, who acts as a narrator throughout the musical. His second role as Lee Harvey Oswald shows his ability to convincingly portray fear and project intensity. The assassination of Kennedy brings us through to the denouement of this tale, which wraps up with the emotionally-charged, “Something Just Broke,” and a reprise of “Everybody’s Got the Right.”

This production was supported by an excellent orchestra conducted by Matthew Scarborough. Set Designer James Maxted’s creation was the perfect accompaniment to this musical. The circus atmosphere was perfectly communicated through blinking lights and carnival games which hung over the actors as they rotated through their numbers. Costume Designer Kathy Dunlap’s creations were also spot-on and showed her range of ability to realistically create multiple articles which fit each distinct period highlighted in this musical— no easy feat, I’m sure.

Assassins at Dominion Stage is a rousing, enjoyable musical with a story that shocks the system, confronting the audience with a hard-hitting look at the ways in which we express our displeasure with our government and ourselves. This production, both biting and fun, is a testament to the skill and passion of the players at Dominion Stage.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.

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Assassins plays through February 10, 2018, at Gunston Theater 2— 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia. Tickets can be purchased online.



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