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"Assassins" show #832

(Cast of Assassins; Photo credit: Steven Lam)

Assassins is my second-favorite Stephen Sondheim show and here’s why: it balances the striving of the assassins to be understood while never condoning the violence of their acts, successful or not. This musical falls under the short list I have of “You mustn’t cast this one wrong if it’s to be done at any level of success.” I had the pleasure of seeing the closing production of East West Players’ showing of Assassins and was impressed with Snehal Desai’s direction, complemented immensely by Anna Robinson diversely functional scenic design and Wesley Charles Siu Muen Chew’s superb lighting design.

For those not in the know, Assassins brings a lineup of America’s infamous assassins to the stage in musical format. John Wilkes Booth is the first we meet, played by Trance Thompson, and while his voice is thunderingly pleasant in “The Ballad of Booth,” there was a lack of stage presence needed to make his Booth the towering leader of the assassins to follow. Adam Kaokept’s song-and-dance affability as the Balladeer gave his downfall into becoming Lee Harvey Oswald all the more torment; Kaokept’s ballads were in perfect timbre for the tenor-voiced actor. Gedde Watanbe, veteran of the Broadway and regional stage, delivered a Charles Guiteau who you couldn’t help but hope would change his course en route to assassinating President Garfield for not appointing him Ambassador to France. George Xavier allowed for his booming baritone to captivate as Leon Czolgosz, and his fourth in “The Gun Song” alongside Watanabe, Thompson, and Joan Almedilla’s Sara Jane Moore was exceptional in harmony and park-and-bark gravitas.

The majority of Almedilla’s work was done opposite Astoncia Bhagat Lyman’s Lynn “Squeaky” Fromme, and while it made for a comedic entertainment it lacked the foundational realism these two female assassins historically present. While there was no comedy bit-stone left unturned, the physical comedy was tapered at a piercingly obvious level which did not match the rest of the production’s grounded performances. Max Torrez served the supporting cast well as The Proprietor, a pseudo-Master of Ceremonies for the assassins, and Christopher Chen gave little as Samuel Byck, whose impact relies heavily on two monologues taken from recordings Byck made leading up to his assassination attempt of President Nixon. However, it was Arvin Lee’s mighty performance as John Hinckley, Jr. which sold me on just how well this material gives the strongest actor-singers. Lee’s duet alongside Bhagat in “Unworthy of Your Love” was dynamite in smooth vocals and deep-seated love towards Jodie Foster, the object of Hinckley, Jr.’s affection.

The talented four-member ensemble was in excellent voice and acting turns, specifically Kym Miller as Emma Goldman and Michael Cavinder in his various roles. Technically, as praised above, this production had it all, in addition to the stellar house band, led by conductor/keyboardist, Marc Macalintal. A near-flawless production was this Assassins, save for the final bit at the end of the final song where one assassin’s misfiring gave the audience a not-needed laugh to release the tension from an otherwise gorgeously sung “Everybody’s Got the Right (reprise).” That said, it was a pleasure seeing East West Players for the first time, and it’s certainly a company I intend to visit again and again.

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