Notorious American Figures Musically Represented in Assassins
Obies welcomed musical theater with open arms last weekend when Assassins went up in Hall Auditorium for three nights. The production was marvelous, a dynamite combination of a unique script and book with a dedicated production staff and talented performers.
For the past two years, Director and Costume Designer Chris Flaharty, also the full-time costume designer and associate professor of theater and dance, has felt that it was time to put on a musical at Oberlin that was sponsored by his department. This production was exciting for those who appreciate musical theater on campus and feel that it is an underrepresented genre at Oberlin. Even those who do not care for musicals tend to find something to appreciate in works by Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist for Assassins. Sondheim’s works are musically and thematically challenging and rife with dark humor.
Like all of Sondheim’s shows, Assassins demands serious vocal control and precision from its performers. The plot focuses on seven men and two women who infamously entered the annals of history by attempting to assassinate — or succeeding in assassinating — Presidents of the U.S. The cast was filled out by a six-person ensemble that assisted in telling the assassins’ stories, along with a balladeer.
Only seven of the 16 performers were Conservatory voice majors, but all of the vocal performances were strong, which can be credited to the individuals’ talent and the experienced musical direction of Conservatory senior Jacob Kidder and double-degree fifth-year Daniel Rodriguez. The pit orchestra played well under Kidder’s baton, doing its best to keep the sound low so as not to drown out the singers on stage, a recurring and unfortunate problem that detracted from the experience at particular moments. The technical elements, including artistic light designing and a large set that resembled a carnival shooting gallery, contributed greatly to the show’s effect.
All of the cast members had made themselves known on the Oberlin stage before, and their acting was engaging and expressive. According to Flaharty, it was a challenge for them to bring their historically-based characters to life in the context of the incongruous vignettes that make Assassins a “fantasia.” The songs of the Balladeer helped to link the scenes together. These catchy tunes were sung by double-degree sophomore Chad Grossman, who was bright-eyed, energetic and strong in vocal projection.
Double-degree first-year Josh Christian commanded the stage with his presence as John Wilkes Booth, especially in his compelling and troubling solo about how “the country is not what it was.” What’s more, there was no evident problem with Christian, a first-year student, sharing the same stage as Associate Professor of Theater and Dance Matthew Wright. But Wright certainly stood out in the show with his ostentatious hand gestures and a funny number, singing “I am going to the Lordy” as he ascended the steps of the gallows, which is exactly what the real Charles Guiteau did at his execution.
Perhaps the most memorable comedic scenes were shared between College sophomore Jill Murdoch and College senior Melissa Bayern, who portrayed the fictitious interactions between Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, respectively. In one scene, the characters smoke marijuana together, bond over their dissatisfaction with life and proceed to fire pistols at the face of Colonel Sanders on a KFC bucket. Murdoch and Bayern executed the scene using clever comedic timing to win the audience’s laughs, but they also suspended the moment to ensure that their violent antics made the audience a little uncomfortable.
The last major dramatic vignette was also notable, it was a scene centered around the intensely dispirited character of John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, played by College sophomore Kevin Carr. The moment was intense and Carr, who many audience members would pigeonhole as a comedic actor, was very convincing.
The only disappointment was the occasional stagnant musical number. The opening selection, “Everybody’s Got The Right,” for example, seemed a little under tempo in terms of the music and the movement on stage.
Some audience members’ criticisms of the show were more based in the script than the production. College junior Jon Hunter, for whom this production was a first-time Sondheim experience, found the images presented on stage very unsettling.
“There were children in the audience on Friday night. I don’t think they would be able to see through the satire,” said Hunter.
From his viewpoint, the killers are glorified in the show, especially in the final number when the assassins are lined up in front of the backdrop of an American flag, arms raised and guns aimed out into the audience. For many, the subject matter may have struck a chord in light of the recent shootings at Virginia Tech.
While Flaharty understood that Assassins isn’t a show for everyone, he believes that its message is a positive one. In discussions with the cast, he brought up the shootings in Virginia, because the correlation was impossible to ignore.
“Assassins is so much about the responsibility of individuals to make choices within the freedom we have in this country,” said Flaharty. “And this show asks an important question: What does it mean when immoral choices are made?”
When rehearsals began in early February, Flaharty, the cast members and the production staff felt a personal attachment to the material.
“I was lucky to work with people who really liked it,” said Flaharty.
For those of us who are admirers of the work of Sondheim and writer John Weidman, and not offended by the issues raised in Assassins, this past weekend’s production was a wonderful thing to have on the Oberlin campus. This was another installment in a series of stellar and thought-provoking Theater and Dance productions to go up this school year.