|Bay Area Musicals photo|
Bay Area Musicals is relatively new to the local theater scene, as this is only their second season. They have certainly not shied away from ambitious shows, as their inaugural season included "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and "La Cage Au Folles". This being my first exposure to the company, I didn't know what to expect, quality-wise. One never knows, especially with musicals.
The PlayThe immediate reason for going to see this play was that my daughter is going to be participating the youth stage production of "Assassins" this summer at Berkeley Playhouse, so the family thought it might be fun to see a production beforehand. I didn't see the show when Shotgun Players did it about five years ago, so really had no idea what it was about, beyond the fact that it portrays a number of individuals who share the connection that they have either assassinated or attempted to assassinate United States presidents. How cheerful and charming!
Truly, I have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea. It sounds rather like a scheme concocted over too many drinks, late at night. How it ever actually came to be, I can't really imagine. After seeing it, I realize I can't dismiss it out of hand, but I'm still not clear what the point of it all is. I recognize that to the extent there is a common thread, it has to do with thwarted ambitions and mental illness, and to some extent the desire to make a mark on the future.
But as the play itself discusses, it is the recognition and almost folkloric perpetuation of these stories that can inspire others to imitate the acts. We literally watch the spirit of John Wilkes Booth encouraging subsequent would-be assassins. What does it then say when a company puts these characters on stage and audiences applaud? Couple that with some live executions on stage, and we're in some pretty unsavory territory, which is troublesome in a work with pretty ambiguous moral stands.
It feels a bit like provocative spectacle for its own sake, or rather for the sake of attention and profit. Where is the moral line between the attention-seeking assassin and the theater that puts that assassin on stage and charges admission?
So yeah, I'm not all that keen on the material.
The ProductionI was pleasantly surprised at the high quality of the production. That starts with the venue, the landmark Alcazar Theater. I'd been by the outside of the building many times, and wondered what lay within. It's quite lovely, and the auditorium itself is quite pleasant and comfortable.
The opening number was a little rocky, with the voices a bit overwhelmed by the orchestra. I was concerned that this would persist through the show, but the sound techs obviously made adjustments and there were no further issues of that sort. The set was fairly simple and abstract, enabling creative use of lighting instead of scenery changes. The costumes were quite good, though I never did comprehend why Samuel Byck was wearing a mangy Santa Claus costume.
But the overall quality of the acting and singing was remarkably high. For a musical, there is actually a fair amount of straight dialogue in "Assassins," so the acting is important. Several actors stood out (in a good way) to me. Zac Schuman as John Hinckley was wonderfully awkward and twitchy, and consistently so, which is difficult. DC Scarpelli as Leon Czolgosz had a consistent intensity, but with a definite humanity. And John Brown as Samuel Byck seemed to totter on the brink of madness with a strong dose of self-awareness. Derrick Silva as John Wilkes Booth was effective, though knowing that he was supposed to be young and fairly small made the casting seem a little odd. Casting historical figures can be difficult that way.
And finally, I thought Kelli Schultz stood out as a very straightforward and believable Lynette Fromme, playing the girlfriend and acolyte of Charles Manson as a disturbingly normal young woman. Unfortunately, that made for a truly odd pairing with Jessica Fisher as Sara Jane Moore, who was portrayed as an over-the-top, inept, and clownish figure, to the point that it felt like she was in a completely different play from everyone else. I have no clue what the director was trying for there, but it didn't work at all.
Indeed, the production was notable for not portraying any of the assassins as caricatures (with the exception of Moore). Troubled, unbalanced, egotistical? Sure. But all seemed like pretty believable people who at some point tipped over into mental territory where assassinating a president made sense to them.
Bottom LineI'm impressed with the effort put forth by Bay Area Musicals in my first exposure. I can't say I'm thrilled with their choice of material this time, but truly, they did a good job of putting on the play. I will definitely check them out in the future.
And if you can't afford the tickets to the blockbuster historical musical playing across town at the Orpheum, you could do worse than to bone up on a weird little corner of American history at the Alcazar.