By BOB HOOVER
The murderers in Assassins seem pretty commonplace in these days of constant reports of violence as they point their guns at the audience. But these killers and would-be assassins share the same desire – self-importance.
In John Weidman’s clunky script, these characters are largely deluded losers who target the country’s most powerful figure, the president, to satisfy their craving for recognition. Happily, Stephen Sondheim’s songs humanize them, even though most are nuts.
The Riverfront Theater Company’s production, its last of the season, wholeheartedly embraces the dark tale of murder most foul. Under Jeff Johnston’s forceful direction, the largely amateur cast embraces the characters’ damaged souls with energy and rare bits of humor.
For instance, Charles Guiteau, who killed President James Garfield in 1881, was truly crazy. Jake Froehlich plays him perfectly with his goofy smile and staring eyes. He happily goes to his death, singing (as Guiteau did), “I’m going to the Lordy, Lordy.”
Weidman’s script stretches history somewhat with its confusing trio of “hosts” – The Balladeer (Carmen LoPresti), The Proprietor (Zack Spurlock), and the instigator of it all, John Wilkes Booth (Ian C. Olson).
Booth was the first successful assassin, a smooth operator with his actor’s talents of persuasion that he employed to push his successors over the edge. Olson lends his Booth a sense of menace behind his eagerness to please.
Assassins has a necessarily large cast with its successful killers and five failures – Giuseppe Zangara (Franklin Roosevelt), Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme (Gerald Ford), Samuel Byck (Richard Nixon), and John Hinkley who wounded Ronald Reagan.
A large ensemble, including 8-year-old Evan Hoffmann, joins them. The highlights (or low lights) include a moving duet by Anna Gergerich (Fromme) and Brandon Marzke (Hinkley), “Unworthy of Your Love,” covering their obsession with Charles Manson and Jodie Foster, respectively.
Riverfront’s 12-piece musical ensemble, with music director Travis Rigby and director Thomas Walters, handles Sondheim’s wide-ranging score, including his lyrics from West Side Story, with aplomb. Unfortunately, the night I was there, the sound system was unbalanced in the first act, often drowning out the singers.
Byck is a mostly unforgotten man who was killed trying to hijack an airliner to crash into the White House. Weidman wastes a lot of time on the guy, giving him two long, crazed monologues. Still, Tom Protulipac injects anger, craziness, and humor in a performance that’s almost scary.
Joyce Hinnebusch as Moore, Jeremy Galloza as Zangara, and Jordan Mastele as Czolgosz give full rein to their characters’ desperation. Emma Goldman, played by a wise Hannah Ruth Moss, shows up as Czolgosz’s inspiration.
Assassins initially seems to leave the best-known killer out of its story, but it’s impossible to ignore Lee Harvey Oswald. It doesn’t, of course, but I’ll keep the transformation in the dark.
The message is that Oswald’s murder of President John Kennedy made his fellows famous again. Urged on by Booth, Oswald is portrayed as unwilling to kill at first. Weidman gets that wrong, I think. Oswald owned the deadly rifle and brought it to his workplace the day JFK’s motorcade rode below the building’s window. (No room for conspiracy buffs here, sorry.)
Riverfront’s Assassins has its rough spots, including a confined stage and several complicated scenes that slow things down. Still, presenting such a challenging show in these trying times was a brave decision.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Riverfront Theater Company’s production of Assassins at Allegheny River Trail Park in Aspinwall has its remaining performances from November 11th at 8 pm and November 16th – 18th at 8 pm. The Sunday, November 12th mattinee is sold out.