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Assassins Kicks The Spot’s Season Off with a Bang
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Tuesday, January 23, 2024
 

STORY BY KAREN BOSSICK

PHOTOS BY BRETT MOELLENBERG and YANNA LANTZ

The nine characters standing on the stage of The Spot include Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth,  Charles Guiteau and Lynette Fromme. They all have something in common—they’re nine of the 13 people who killed or tried to kill an American president.

These are people who believed in the American Dream but experienced only failure and disappointment. And the president was an easy target to blame—and with which to get their 15 minutes of fame.

“Assassins,” which opens Thursday, Jan. 25, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 4, is unarguably one of the most controversial musicals in American theater, given its unsettling yet alarmingly funny veneer. But the musical, which features the melodies and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, won multiple Tony Awards in its exploration of the nation’s culture of celebrity and the violent means some have used to obtain it.

It offers a thought-provoking look at why these characters did what they did.

“ ‘Assassins’ is a runaway train constantly shifting tone from camp to drama, accompanied by the genius melodies and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim,” said Director Yanna Lantz. “We meet and witness the attempted and successful assassinations of our nine villains, but they endear themselves to us along the way--not making their acts any less terrible but helping us understand why they did what they did.”

“Assassins” introduces “a group of assorted nuts,” according to David Janeski, who plays Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley. Set in a carnival-like setting, each shares a song, which reveals their motive or character, and some fail comically while others succeed tragically.

Egging them on is The Proprietor, played by Othello Pratt Jr. He operates a shooting gallery where he offers them weapons and whispered encouragement—his motives veiled and his presence captivating unsettling. A master of the shadows, he weaves a dark spell, drawing the disillusioned into his web, said Pratt. His true intentions remain hidden, leaving the audience to ponder the depths of his sinister allure.

“He seems to embody the darker aspects of American culture and capitalism, profiting from violence and exploiting the disillusioned,” Pratt added.

The piece features some very stylized assassination attempts, but it mostly asks why someone would commit such a heinous and selfish act, said Brett Moellenberg, who plays Charles Guiteau, a failed lawyer who shot James A. Garfield in 1881 because he believed the president owed him something for his vote.

“The President himself was not typically the obsession,” said Janeski: “These killers wanted larger social change, to make a statement that would ring throughout history, to unify a party, or help the working class. Or just to grab the attention of Jodie Foster. Either way, the magnitude of the office of the president attracted these radicals and bore the brunt of their rage.”

Moellenberg said he enjoyed portraying Guiteau because it gives him the opportunity to believe he is the greatest person on earth, as Guiteau did, for the duration of the play each night.

“Living inside the rush of the terrible thing he did is exhilarating. In acting, we cannot judge the character we are playing--we can only do our best to find the character's qualities in ourselves and express them in the ways that feel most truthful and personal,” he said.

Vanessa Sterling, who plays Franklin D. Roosevelt’s would-be assassin Giuseppe Zangara, said her character’s story showcases the relentless and often insurmountable damage poverty can have on a life. One might say it also hints at the discontent many Americans seem to be expressing with the American political scene today.

“Zangara was born into a very poor family in Italy. He was malnourished, uneducated, and he was forced to do hard labor from the time he was a small child,” she said. “All these things had profound effects on his physical and mental health, which he ultimately blamed on political leaders in Italy, and ultimately America.”

Assistant Stage Manager Onni Petersen, a member of the Spot Young Company, created a timeline of  the events mentioned in the musical and determined that, while Sondheim and Weidman take some artistic liberties, they are extremely factual in their portrayal of the assassins.

Janeski said he was struck by how lax security measures were, enabling the many attempts on presidents.

“Sam Byck brought a bomb to an airport, John Hinckley read about the president's daily itinerary in a newspaper, Sara Jane Moore worked with the FBI. These acts of violence have a way of seeming both unbelievable and somehow fated,” he said.

Unsung, he added, were heroic bystanders who intervened, knocking some of the would-be assassins, including Hinckley, Moore and Zangara, off their mark.

The musical features such iconic numbers as “Everybody’s Got the Right” and “Unworthy of Your Love.” Its beautiful melodies, distinctive phrasing and numerous tempo changes make it a roller coaster ride for cast, musicians and audience, said Michael Kelly, who provides the percussion.

“I have learned that a tempo, such as 9/8 time exists,” he said.

The songs are clever, thought provoking, often upbeat, and at times heartbreaking,” added Vanessa Sterling.

Ultimately, the musical lays bare the divides in America – the haves and the have nots, said Lantz.

“The happy and the sad. The lonely and the loved. I think the idea that you can be famous for doing something awful is both real and terrible--and it comes from a place of desperation and pain. I hope people will consider their own aspirations and evaluate what makes them happy and loved after the show. And, I hope they consider their relationship with guns.”

Lantz said she doesn’t think there’s another musical like “Assassins.”

“I go from laughing to shock back to laughing and feel conflicted about my own emotions during certain sequences,” she said. “The musical is asking important questions, but intentionally not giving the answers.”

THE CAST

Matty Gorby plays Samuel Byck; David Janeski, John Hinckley; Annabelle Lewis, Lynne Squeaky Fromme, and Ward Loving, Leon Czolgosz. Brett Moellenberg plays Charles Guiteau; Matt Musgrove, John Wilkes Booth; Justin Packard, Lee Harvey Oswald; Vanessa Sterling, Giuseppe Zangara; Aly Wepplo, Sara Jane Moore, and Othello Pratt Jr., The Proprietor.

The musical is under the direction of Yanna Lantz. R.L. Rowsey directs the band, which is comprised of himself, Dorinda Rendahl, Joel Bejot and Michael Kelly.

IF YOU GO…

“Assassins” runs from Thursday, Jan. 25, to Sunday, Feb. 4, at The Spot, 220 Lewis St. in Ketchum’s light industrial district. The show starts at a variety of times, including 4, 6, 7 and 8 p.m. Tickets start at $20, available at https://ci.ovationtix.com/35975/production/1185526

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