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Sondheim “Kills” at BU Theatre

CFA’s Assassins probes American nightmare

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It’s the dark side of the American dream, the musical version. Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a biting, funny, surreal, and half-demented carnival romp about nine people who killed or tried to kill U.S. presidents. Out of context, hearing the upbeat melodic refrain from one of the play’s biggest numbers, “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” it’s unlikely the image conjured is of would-be assassins John Hinckley or Squeaky Fromme waving a pistol. But Sondheim’s musical delights in chilling irony, and creates a picture of a fractured world in which, as the catchy tune continues, “Everybody gets a shot.”

The musical, which concludes the theme of violence in the inaugural year of CFA’s keyword initiative, is being presented by the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre at the BU Theatre through May 10.

“You leave the theater thinking about who these people were, and who we are—the show makes it very clear that they are us,” says Jim Petosa, director of Assassins, which was created by Sondheim, with a book by John Weidman. “Whether the characters are motivated by their own brand of patriotism, social justice, revenge, or merely insanity, the play doesn’t skirt any of those issues,” says Petosa, director of the School of Theatre and recently named artistic director of the New Repertory Theatre, in Watertown, Mass. “The American dream becomes the American nightmare.”

Assassins earned five Tony awards when it opened on Broadway in April 2004, nearly 14 years after its off-Broadway premiere. An earlier production was scheduled for Broadway in late 2001, but was postponed in the wake of 9/11 because the content was perceived as too sensitive.

Stephen Sondheim Assassins, Harrison Brian, Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek, John Scala, Melissa Carter

Harrison Brian (CFA’14) (from left) as Giuseppe Zangara, Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek (CFA’12) as John Wilkes Booth, John Scala (CFA’14) as Charles Guiteau, and Melissa Carter (CFA’12) as Sara Jane Moore.

In musical genres reflecting each character’s historical period, the show puts the killers and would-be killers together at a carnival booth, where they cross space and time to address one another in conversation and song. With costumes designed by Evan Prizant (CFA’13) and scenic design by Kamilla Kurmanbekova (CFA’12), Assassins is choreographed by Judith Chaffee, a CFA associate professor of movement.

Petosa says he’s partial to the character of John Wilkes Booth, a stirring standout, but Assassins audiences also get to know names largely lost to history, such as Leon Czolgosz, who fatally shot William McKinley, Charles Guiteau, the killer of James Garfield, and Samuel Byck, who attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon. “I love that the show’s creators tackled a topic that seems so outrageous and offensive, and turned it into a piece full of humanity and heart,” says guest music director Matthew Stern, adding that Assassins “can elicit so much sympathy from its audience in a truly alarming and ironic way.”

Sondheim is full of surprises. For example, in the oddly poignant “Ballad of Booth,” a variation on a familiar war hymn, it’s suggested that the tormented stage actor “killed a country” because of bad reviews. In another song, Czolgosz ruminates on the history of American gun-making in an unsparing description of the horrors faced by factory workers.

Stephen Sondheim Assassins, Casey Tucker, Evan Gambardella, Melissa Carter

Casey Tucker (CFA’14) (from left) as Squeaky Fromme, Evan Gambardella (CFA’14) as the Balladeer, and Carter.

“I love how dark the play is, and how funny,” says acting major Evan Gambardella (CFA’14), who as the Balladeer is on stage for most of the play. Making his mainstage debut, Gambardella, who also portrays Lee Harvey Oswald, found that preparing for the role was a lesson in history. “I didn’t even know other presidents were assassinated besides Kennedy and Lincoln,” he says. “I know more about this stuff now than I ever could have imagined.” Like the production’s other young actors, he has become a Sondheim fan. The composer and lyricist responsible for such Broadway classics as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd is “a really great story teller,” he says. “I’ve fallen in love with the way he takes actors on a ride.” The show’s cast of 15 actors includes Melissa Carter (CFA’12) as Sarah Jane Moore, who bungled an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford, and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek (CFA’12) as John Wilkes Booth.

CFA’s production has an orchestra of nine musicians, a larger ensemble than the original Broadway show. “It’s a big, brassy sound,” says Petosa, which varies in style “from Sousa marches to wistful American ballads.” Audiences will hear a touch of “Copland, Bernstein, even Bacharach.” Together the assassins belt out pop duos and harmonize in a barbershop quartet.

“One of the most enjoyable aspects of working on this score is unraveling all of the secrets Sondheim folds into the music,” Stern says. The musical demands that audiences “think outside the box.” The show opens with a version of “Hail to the Chief” that’s a distorted waltz rather than the standard march, and “it’s fascinating to look through the rest of the score and figure out where Sondheim is paying homage to this tune, and why.”

The play “is particularly suited to our BU actors and artists,” says Petosa, who sees Assassins as a meditation on “the ying and yang” of American life. “The American dream and the American tragedy. You can’t have one without the other.”

Assassins runs Friday, May 4, through Thursday, May 10, (no performance Monday, May 7) at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Take the T’s Green Line E trolley to the Symphony stop, the Orange Line to the Mass. Ave. stop, or the BUS to Huntington Ave. Tickets are $12 for the general public, $10 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, students, senior citizens, and groups of 10 or more; members of the BU community can receive one free ticket with BU ID at the door on the day of the performance, subject to availability. Buy tickets here or call 617-933-8600.

1 Comments
Susan Seligson, Senior Writer for BU Today and Bostonia
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

One Comment on Sondheim “Kills” at BU Theatre

  • laura on 05.06.2012 at 1:25 am

    The Assassins was incredible! Each assassin was better than the last. There is quite a bit of talent in the BU department.

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