Without much fanfare, a Proprietor, donning a suit and boater hat, walks onto the stage at Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts. Within the first few minutes, he is shining guns with an American flag and passing them out to those rushing by as nonchalantly as if he were serving up apple pie at a carnival. The Propreitor's (Michael Bertolini) words are clear: "C'mere and kill a president."
In the Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman musical, Assassins, this is just the beginning of the mayhem audiences will experience in the 90-minute, one-act "revusical" directed by Smithtown PAC's Artistic Director, Kenneth J. Washington.
It is a show with no rules. Nine villains from different periods in American history are united in what feels like a version of purgatory (although three of these figures are still living). Some of the names are recognizable - John Wilkes Booth (a sharp Evan Teich), who shot Abraham Lincoln - and others not so much, like Leon Czolgosz (Sandra Scenga), the killer of William McKinley. History is turned on its heels, not necessarily in chronological order, as these rare and controversial perspectives are presented. Make no mistake, Assassins can easily be seen as a glorification of these violent individuals but, according to Sondheim, it was written because by themselves, each of these acts and the consequences were theatrical on their own.
No one should expect Assassins to make them feel warm and fuzzy inside. It is a show that feeds off the uncomfortable, and presents a side of the human psyche that is difficult to fathom. At this performance, you could feel the audience's hesitation to react after each number. Morally, it doesn't feel right to clap after someone justifies their murderous actions because of their own rights, health problems (true story: Giuseppe Zangara, played by Jordan Hue, blamed FDR for his stomach pains and shot him), or bumping up the sales of their book. But if a production does it right, the audience gets wrapped up and the performances help override those instinctual feelings.
The current cast of Smithtown PAC answers the challenge and remains faithful to the work of Sondheim and Weidman (for which they were awarded the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2004). In this character-driven musical, the cast fully encompassed their roles through their looks (wonderful costuming), their sound (under the musical direction of James Dorney and backed by a brilliant orchestra), and the chemistry they all shared. They steadfastly hit upon the comedy and the tragedy of these stories, even when they switched between the two quite quickly. (Michael Newman as Sam Byck is a perfect example of this.)
In fact, the strength of the company makes it difficult to spotlight anyone in particular. A noteworthy moment included Czolgosz, Booth, and Charles Guiteau (in a spirited portrayal by Bill Kahn) performing a barbershop-esque rendition of "Gun Song". Though Emily Dowdell and Andrea Galeno as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, respectively, stand out as the only women to grace the stage, they stand out much more for their killer voices and the organic and lively connection manifested in shared scenes.
Ryan Nolin is a dead ringer for John Hinckley and effectively delivers throughout, especially in the noteworthy duet, "Unworthy of Your Love" with Dowdell's Squeaky. And in a role that doesn't become clear until much later, Jeremy Hudson commands the stage as the Balladeer, his voice reminiscent of Neil Patrick Harris who played the role in the 2004 Broadway revival. Towards the end of the show, the ensemble gives a haunting and memorable rendition of "Something Just Broke".
Unfortunately, the set - designed by director Washington - was more of a hindrance than an asset. Wood scaffolding built on stalls that housed the assassins throughout the production was rarely utilized to its fullest potential. The walkway, used during the hanging of Guiteau and a few scenes with Proprietor and Balladeer, may have been more effective if the assassins who were not center stage were able to roam freely and take advantage of the space.
The set never seemed to find its true identity, losing the carnival feel from the opening sequence. Projections used throughout the production are helpful at times, but distracting and unnecessary at others.