ALL POWERFUL CAST TURNS ZOETIC’S ‘ASSASSINS”
INTO A SHOWCASE FOR YOUNG SOUTH FLORIDA TALENT

By Ron Levitt
Florida Media News

MIAMI — Assassins, the politically incorrect Zoetic Stage musical which opened at the Arsht Center’s blackbox Carnival stage Friday night,scores as a winner on several levels:

  1. It is a lesson in democracy and a rebuttal to the National Rifle Association regarding the use of firearms. If anyone seeing this show doesn’t envision the need for gun control, he or she must have been seeing another show or wearing heavy earmuffs.
  2. It is – in Broadway terminology – a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, which uses the premise of a murderous carnival game to produce a revue-style portrayal of men and women who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate Presidents of the United States. The music varies to reflect the popular music of the era as depicted.
  3. This particular production, so brilliantly directed by the multi-talented Stuart Meltzer , is a showcase of young South Florida theatrical talent rarely seen in the same show. By all counts, there are a dozen men and women -playing -mostly unsavory characters who left their mark on U.S. history only because of their hateful action.

The musical first opened Off-Broadway in 1990, and the 2004 Broadway production won five Tony Awards. It is by any standard a totally different kind of musical. Except for the closing reprise Everybody’s Got the Right, one does not come out humming one of the show’s songs, even though the ballads are of historical elements and are noteworthy for their Americana interpretations and liberal philosophical lyrics. Nevertheless, it is such an original musical – much in the style of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – it is hard to forego its message emblazoned on a carnival flipboard in this production –Take Your Shot.

Assassins begins as the Proprietor of the game (a noteworthy Shane Tanner) entices a host of unsavory characters to play, promising that their problems will be solved by killing a President. ( that’s when “Everybody’s Got the Right” comes in) . Leon Czolgosz, John Hinckley, Charles Guiteau, Giuseppe Zangara, Samuel Byck, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore are given their guns one by one. John Wilkes Booth (a vibrant portrayal by the talented Nicholas Richberg) enters last and the Proprietor introduces him to the others as their pioneer before he begins distributing ammunition. The assassins take aim as “Hail to the Chief” heralds Abraham Lincoln’s offstage arrival. Booth excuses himself, a shot rings out and Booth shouts, “Sic semper tyrannis!”

Meanwhile, The Balladeer (a memorable Chris Crawford) portrays the personification of the American Dream — as well as Lee Harvey Oswald ) as a host of characters are unveiled whose claim to fame is their firearm attack on a President.

There are so many memorable moments and star-quality actors participating in this musical, one can easily be distracted recalling a school history lesson when a teacher named a President and the assassin who either tried to kill or did assassinate one of our country’s leaders.

Among the standout performances (including Balladeer Tanner) are Nick Duckart, Clay Cartland, Gabriel Zenone, Henry Gainza, Chaz Mena, Lindsey Forgey, Irene Adjan, Nicholas Richberg, Chris Crawford and ensemble members Kristian Bikic, and Stephanie White.

It is the kind if show with so many standout moments, one would have to rewrite history to describe Assassins in full. Cartland’s describing a John Hinkley and his obsession with Jody Foster (and his attempt to impress her by attempting to kill Ronald Reagan) while strumming his guitar is such a moment!

Nick Duckart’s interpretation of Czolgosz (who killed President McKinley) is a constant in this production, as are Irene Adjan and Lindsey Forgey who have spectacular moments as would-be killers Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme ( both after Gerald Ford) respectively (but not respectfully).

Chris Crawford – fresh off his successful Florida debut in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Carbonell-nominee The Lion in Winter) comes on as a South Florida wannabe star in his double role as the Balladeer and Oswald (who left his mark on the death of President John F. Kennedy) Henry Gainza, Chaz Mena and Gabriel Zenone also all shine as actors playing real-time gun-obsessed characters one would hopefully forget!

Assassins is three year old Zoetic’s first musical and puts it on par with several other companies musically inclined. When you Google Assassins – and, well you should – you will discover you can see the entire show on a DVD and that there is even an online action game so entitled to give one the thrill of being part of similar action -behind all the carnage and mayhem which the title implies. Although it is set in another century, it implies we all have the same DNA to execute the carnage as echoed in this production.

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Assassins: Bold Musical About Presidential Killers, Miami New Times

By John Thomason
Thursday, Feb 6 2014

Legend has it that at the end of Edwin S. Porter’s pioneering 1903 short film The Great Train Robbery, when an actor playing a bandit points his gun directly into the camera and fires, many moviegoers were scared out of their wits. The medium was too new for a camera angle this sophisticated and Brechtian, so audience members were afraid the bullet would pierce the screen.

Photo: Justin Namon
Photo: Justin Namon

They’re a cauldron of schizophrenics, false patriots, cult followers, and bargain-basement kooks.

One hundred eleven years later, during the opening number of Zoetic Stage’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Arsht Center, it’s clear this trick doesn’t get old, even if we happen to know better. Dressed in all black, a character known as the Proprietor (Shane Tanner) dispenses guns to various miscreants; we’ll eventually come to recognize these disturbed souls as nine assassins, or would-be assassins, of sitting presidents. But at this time, they’re simple trying out their new toys and singing about their freedom to wield them. There’s something more than a little unnerving about eight people pointing pistols at the audience of a packed theater.

They’re prop guns, of course, handled by actors who, in this case, studied with a credited firearms instructor. This doesn’t do much to alleviate the unease. But if we weren’t fully absorbed in the fiction, twitching in our seats with every piercing pop of smoky gunfire, it wouldn’t be good theater, would it?

The reason a scene like this works so well is that director Stuart Meltzer has struck the perfect Sondheimian balance between danger and beauty, a delicate tightrope he’ll spend the next two hours walking. When done right, carnage and loveliness intermingle in many Sondheim scenes, with comic irony often acting as their offspring. Just as when Judge Turpin croons gorgeously about “pretty women” while Sweeney Todd waits for the right opportunity to slit his throat, here we have John Hinckley Jr. (Clay Cartland) and Squeaky Fromme (Lindsey Forgey) pining for their paramours, real or imagined, in “Unworthy of Your Love,” a number that, were the vocalists not deranged and packing heat, would sound pure and heartfelt, the kind of tune one would envy receiving.

That said, there are probably no songs inAssassins that reach the heights of the best of Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods or Company. There are only nine original songs in this piece, some of them 20 minutes apart. This is a show that relies at least as much, if not more, on John Weidman’s book — a plotless, surrealist concoction in which the assassins are liberated from time and space to gather in a bar, influence one another’s dark thoughts, and ultimately justify, in their minds, their actions.

The characters include the actor and Civil War avenger John Wilkes Booth (Nicholas Richberg); the agitated factory worker and McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz (Nick Duckart); Charles Manson acolyte Fromme and bookkeeper Sara Jane Moore (Irene Adjan), who bumbled through an attempt to shoot Gerald Ford; Charles Guiteau, the political wannabe who shot James Garfield; and Samuel Byck (Chaz Mena), the mentally unsound former tire salesman who attempted to hijack a plane bound for the Nixon White House.

Collectively, they’re a cauldron of schizophrenics, false patriots, cult followers, and bargain-basement kooks, each of them an all-too-familiar archetype in our sad, roiling, repetitive history of malcontents.

Under Meltzer’s direction, each assassin is bestowed with character quirks that leave a powerful impression. Richberg’s Booth, with his dark suit and ostentatious red-felt vest with a gold pocket watch, projects erstwhile Southern gallantry — a pitiful B actor with a wounded leg, limping around a Virginia barn about to be set ablaze by the authorities. Richberg is such a good actor, imbuing this cretin with such tragic torment, we actually sympathize with him a little. Mena’s Byck is America’s irate id, a fount of delusional outrage in an absurd Santa costume who, if he were around today, would probably earn high ratings on hundreds of Clear Channel talk stations.

Zenone plays Guiteau like an unctuous dandy, hilariously waving jazz hands as he’s led to his gallows. Cartland’s Hinckley is a sensitive, guitar-strumming nerd with an unhealthy obsession with a certain Taxi Driver costar, a role that feels as informed by Cartland’s own body of work as by the real-life Hinckley. As Fromme and Moore, Forgey and Adjan are the Keystone Kops of presidential assassins, and Meltzer draws some of the show’s wittiest exchanges from these two actors. The Sondheimian balance doesn’t extend to them: We never get any sense of a genuine threat when they’re onstage, but they’re so funny we don’t miss it.

The only performance that doesn’t resonate is Henry Gainza as Giuseppe Zangara, the would-be assassin of FDR. There’s not much in the script — his only characteristic is intense stomach pain. But Meltzer and Gainza do little to bring this caricature to life, and his one tune, from which he sings while strapped to an electric chair, is static; it’s the only time the production approaches boredom.

There are no complaints about the design qualities, which are some of the best in some of the best in Zoetic’s history. This is a production that continually goes the extra mile to surprise and impress, from Michael McKeever’s intricate set design — a carnival booth complete with a lighted “Take Your Shot” marquee hanging overhead, rotating presidential portraits mounted on a wall, and the presidential seal carved into the wooden floorboards — to Ron Burns’ lighting design, with its multiple spotlights and red and blue police lights hidden in crates. The amusing props, courtesy of Jodi Dellaventura, result in a couple of knockout gags I won’t spoil.

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Zoetic Stage’s triumphant production

By Bill Hirschman

The most stunning aspect of Zoetic Stage’s triumphant production of the dark musical Assassins is how deafening its themes resonate nearly a quarter century later in today’s polarized world of disaffected people feeling impotent unless they resort to violence to be heard above the din.

Truths that were so discomfiting that the world premiere tanked trying to find a mainstream audience during the Gulf War, now seems frighteningly prescient -– and an accepted part of the norm.

That Zoetic has chosen this uncommercial Stephen Sondheim /John Weidman opus for its first musical – and succeeded in scaling its genius – is cause for local celebration. Director Stuart Meltzer and a superb collection of actors and designers have scored, forgive me, a bull’s eye.

Assassins is a gathering at a carnival shooting gallery of eight successful and unsuccessful Presidential assassins, from the infamous John Wilkes Booth to the nearly forgotten Sam Byck who planned to fly a plane into Nixon’s White House. The book scenes and songs tell their stories from inside their mindset. All of them, especially Booth, are really there to encourage an ambivalent Lee Harvey Oswald to fulfill his destiny.

Despite a surprisingly wry and occasionally farcical tone, Assassins asks whether the root cause of these tragedies says something about the marrow of this country. The answering hypothesis is unambiguously crystalline. They result from our society propagating the specious fairy tale of the American Dream: Success is guaranteed if you apply yourself enough.

As the chorus sings with joyful entitlement, “Everybody’s got the right to be… different / Even though at times they go to extremes / Aim for what you want a lot / Everybody gets a shot / Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

When that promise proves hollow, some people vent their pain and disappointment in violence. They may seem a disparate group ranging from John Hinckley wanting to impress actress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan, up to disappointed office seeker Charles Guiteau who shot James Garfield on the orders of God. But, in fact, the authors see a commonality that might strike an unsettlingly familiar chord in most people’s dissatisfaction.

The musical’s creators in no way excuse the assassins’ actions; they portray them as vain, selfish, weak, deluded and often downright insane. Yet each is someone who feels cheated of a birthright — the fantasy of America as promulgated by teachers, politicians, the media and a society at large. But the show also underscores that a chastened, saddened but essentially decent America always rebounds and prevails, or at least that’s what they wrote in 1990.

Sara Jane Moore accidentally discharging of her pistol, and the profound emotional agony at institutionalized injustice driving the downtrodden Leon Czolgosz.
Further, the cast and band under Caryl Fantel’s music direction do justice to a challenging score that riffs on classic musical Americana, encompassing Sousa marches, a barbershop quartet and minstrel show cakewalks. But the traditional melodic strains are played off against anarchic atonal passages of angst and anger. Echoes of Sondheim’s other work are clear, such as the nimble wordplay of Into The Woods and the dissonance of Passion.

The book, which Sondheim always credits for much of his inspiration, is by Weidman who earlier wrote the script for Pacific Overtures and later for Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show. His scenes aren’t connective tissue between musical numbers but a fully fleshed-out play with integrated music. This gives Meltzer and his cast some dramatic and comic meat to work with.

Which brings us belatedly to the 13-member cast. In any other review, the quality of every performance would rate at least a couple of paragraphs. But with such a large assemblage, we’ll have to give some people short shrift. While these players certainly work together smoothly, ensemble isn’t quite the right term. Every one creates an independent vibrant individualized performance as evidenced by their spotlit solos. They can be terribly funny in the extremity of their delusions, then not so damn funny when they tumble over the edge of violence. Plus, several of the featured performers step into other transitory supporting roles.
If only because he has the most showy role, start with Nicholas Richberg’s Booth. The actor (Cock and All New People) exudes Booth’s mixture of self-deluded ego and patriotic altruism. A matinee idol’s charisma pours off him as he seduces Oswald from killing himself to killing Kennedy.

Chaz Mena as Samuel Byck
Chaz Mena as Samuel Byck

Then comes Chaz Mena as the hapless loser Sam Byck. He is simultaneously a hilarious and terrifying cartoon in a rumpled Santa Claus suit as he munches greasy junk food and dictates taped manifestos destined for Leonard Bernstein, Jonas Salk, Jack Anderson and Hank Aaron. Mena, a criminally underemployed actor, nails the two long diatribes in which Byck vents his barely reined fury. Mena skillfully brings a variety of tones and emotional levels to what could have just been an unrelieved spewing of bile.

Nick Duckart (Usnavi in In The Heights), as Czolgosz who shot William McKinley, embodies the outrage of the blue-collar worker at the system’s inequity. Singing in the basement of his register, Duckart brings the intensity of a barely controlled explosive. Thanks to Weidman, Duckart delivers the most relatable motivations to the piece. Duckart also believably plays a tender scene in which the troubled young man expresses his adoration to the revolutionary speaker Emma Goldman.

The certifiable Charles Guiteau as portrayed by Gabriel Zenone would be laughable if we didn’t know he was so dangerous. Zenone, who played Sylvia St. Croix in Actors Playhouse’sRuthless, makes Guiteau gleefully living in his own fantasy. He’s also the most fey Guiteau we’ve ever seen, a strange choice since he comes on to Sara Jane Moore. But Zenone is memorable for bugging out his eyes as they see doomed dreams of glory, even as he mounts the scaffold.

Chris Crawford (who had a beard last month as Richard II in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The Lion In Winter) has a strong clear Midwestern decency that he emanates for most the show as The Balladeer, a narrator who sees the assassins for who they really are. But later, he is completely plausible as the conflicted Lee Harvey Oswald.
Just as good are Lindsey Forgey as Charles Manson’s acolyte Squeaky Fromme who tries to kill Gerald Ford; Irene Adjan as the addled but ordinary looking Moore (and Emma Goldman); Henry Gainza as Giuseppe Zangara who failed to hit Franklin Roosevelt but killed a Chicago mayor during a state visit not a mile away from the Arsht Center at Bayfront Park; Shane Tanner as the proprietor of the shooting gallery amorally arming the assassins for a buck; Clay Cartland as a woebegone John Hinckley who sings a lovely love song along with Forgey about how they would kill to prove their love; and a nod to young ensemble members Kristian Bikic, Stephanie White and Aidan Neal.

Partly responsible for everything you see, Meltzer’s staging also is dead on and he adds dozens of little fillips of his own such as a well-timed somersault whose context we won’t spoil here. While there are scene changes in blackouts, he makes the evening seem to slide by gracefully.

If you have seen the show before, Zoetic’s team brings their own fresh vision to every aspect from Michael McKeever’s set to Ron Burns’ lighting to Alberto Arroyo’s costumes. Applause is also due to the off-stage band, which includes Andrea Gilbert on woodwinds; Greg Chance, on guitar, bass and banjo; Roy Fantel on percussion and conductor Caryl Fantel playing keyboards that stand-in for another dozen instruments.

Created as a very loose repertory company, Zoetic has established itself in three seasons as a major theatrical force in the region mixing contemporary plays and acclaimed world premieres by two of its members, Michael McKeever and Christopher Demos-Brown.

But this is an unusually hefty bet being placed by Zoetic. Besides being its first musical, it has the largest cast – and therefore investment—that Zoetic has ever dared. Assassins is not one of Sondheim’s better known shows and the title is not likely to attract casual ticket buyers. The first off-Broadway production in 1990 played about three months and the Broadway production in 2004 ran only slightly longer. A production slated for 2001 closed before it opened in deference to sensitivity about 9/11. Locally, the only group to try it was Boca Raton’s Slow Burn Theatre Company in 2010 which champions challenging work.

Like some other Sondheim shows, Assassins has been tweaked over the years. Among the most prominent addition is the song, “Something Just Broke.” Meant to give the show a view from outside the minds of madmen, it depicts ordinary citizens recalling where they were when they heard of an assassination.

In the spirit of full disclosure, this critic is a Sondheim fanatic; I even value parts of Passion. I didn’t find this edition as chilling, thrilling or shocking as others I have seen, but that is likely due to my over-familiarity with the material. Others in the audience certainly felt transfixed by what Zoetic had wrought.

Any Sondheim fan understands that his work is not everyone’s cup of saltpeter. But for those who seek intelligent, thought-provoking musical theater, there are few pieces as superb as this.

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Zoetic Stages an all-to-relevant “Assassins” at the Arsht Center, The Miami Herald

BY CHRISTINE DOLEN
CDOLEN@MIAMIHERALD.COM

As the possibility of achieving the American dream grows fainter for too many, as fresh examples of unfathomable acts of violence feed a voracious 24/7 news cycle, Assassins just may be the musical of the moment.

Yes, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright John Weidman created their thought-provoking, surprisingly entertaining musical in 1990. But as the excellent new production by Miami’s Zoetic Stage abundantly demonstrates, Assassins remains all too resonant in 2014.

Sondheim’s work is more intellectually and musically challenging than most, so props to the still-young Zoetic and artistic director Stuart Meltzer for choosing Assassins as the company’s first musical. Presented in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the show is a riveting, first-rate exploration of the way dreams and beliefs can turn into dangerous disillusionment.

Unfolding in a carnival-style shooting gallery, Assassins imagines a gathering of successful and would-be presidential killers from different eras. After the game’s provocative Proprietor (Shane Tanner) supplies the nine men and women with guns, the Balladeer (Chris Crawford) starts to tell their stories, beginning with the “pioneer” John Wilkes Booth (Nicholas Richberg).

Over the course of two hours, though not in chronological order, the Balladeer explores the stories of Charles Guiteau (Gabriel Zenone), Giuseppe Zangara (Henry Gainza), Leon Czolgosz (Nick Duckart), Sara Jane Moore (Irene Adjan), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lindsey Forgey), Samuel Byck (Chaz Mena) and John Hinckley (Clay Cartland), finally transforming into Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin whose televised act took societal grief to a new level.

Given that some of the real-life killers were murderous misfits or clearly deranged, you might think that Assassins would make for a grim piece of theater. Not so. Sondheim, whose work stylistically embraces the different eras in which the assassins lived, and Weidman, who captures the thematic connections among the characters in substantial scenes, embrace humor and irony as storytelling tools.

Adjan’s accident-prone Moore and Forgey’s delusional Fromme share a kooky scene in which the women confide their daddy issues and discover a mutual link to Charles Manson. Fromme and Cartland’s loner Hinckley sing a melodically lovely, lyrically unsettling duet on Unworthy of Your Love, thinking respectively of Manson (Fromme) and Jodie Foster (Hinckley). Zenone’s appealing Guiteau is an amusingly cheerful man with grandiose thoughts, right up to the moment he ascends to the gallows. Mena’s scary-funny Byck, dressed in a Santa suit and chowing down junk food, is the kind of nut case whose anger at being ignored could make him flip on a dime from eccentricity to murderous rage.

With intricately detailed staging by Meltzer and musical direction by Caryl Fantel, Assassins really does sing. To a man and woman, the cast has the vocal skills and finesse that the material requires. Richberg is a mesmerizing Booth, utterly convincing as a 19th century actor who went out in an inglorious blaze. Duckart, with his deep voice and tormented demeanor, makes Czogolsz emblematic of those who work themselves nearly to death and get exactly nowhere. Ditto Gainza’s ailing Zangara, whose soaring voice is silenced by the electric chair.

The design work on Assassins — Michael McKeever’s shooting gallery set, Ron Burns’ mood-shifting lighting, Alberto Arroyo’s period-evoking costumes, Meltzer’s sound — expertly serves the show. Be advised, if you’re one of those who jumps at the sound of a gunshot, that the production’s theatrical firearms get quite a workout.

There’s a place for theater that simply wants to entertain its audiences, but a piece like Assassins aspires to much, much more. Theatergoers who take the leap with Zoetic and experience a musical that remains all too relevant will go home thinking, talking and enriched.

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