The In-Person Off-Broadway Experience: CSC’s Assassins
My Sondheim Week of Appreciation in NYC, Part 3.
“Everybody’s got the right to be happy. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.” Sounds about right, especially when sung by a band of characters who are contemplating murder. Well, not murder exactly, we are told. ‘Assassination’ is the more ‘prideful’ word they like or want to hold onto. It makes them feel more special, we are told. ‘Shocking’ might also have been the first word used, particularly when Stephen Sondheim’s infamous masterpiece, Assassins, presented itself for judgment at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway in 1990. It received mainly mixed and negative reviews, and then, fourteen years later, when it opened on Broadway, it received highly favorable notices, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. That’s quite the turn-around I must say. I would have loved to be in that first show, Off-Broadway audience, feeling the response ripple through the crowds as this show, one by one, jumped over all kinds of barriers and ideals for what musicals should be, or could be all about. That would have been an experience, hopefully as good as the one experienced the other week during its revival presentation once again Off-Broadway but this time around at the Classic Stage Company downtown.
Assassins is quite the macabre framework for a somehow absolutely delightful musical. I’m sure it’s not for everyone’s taste, but for this theatre junkie, especially during his Sondheim Week of Appreciation in NYC 2021, it is pure theatrical magic; hilarious, entertaining, and wildly intellectually fascinating, especially in this small electrifying revival currently taking aim under the watchful and artistic eye of director John Doyle (CSC’s Pacific Overtures; The Cradle Will Rock). The man is no newbie to Sondheim, finding simplicity and honesty, alongside artistic majesty inside each of his Broadway productions of Sweeney Todd and Company. Some say he keeps playing with the same deck of cards, but I beg to differ. I walked into that perfectly aligned space, designed simply and strongly by Doyle, ready and willing to watch him reload and fire something fantastic our way. And it wasn’t formulaic, but exact and forever interesting.
Delivering yet again another killer revival of a Sondheim classic, Doyle ushers this particular eclectic group of murders into and onto his painted American flag with a determined agenda of fun and carnival-like adventure. Decked out in fantastically fun costumes designed by Ann Hould-Ward (CSC’s Macbeth), this masterful ensemble assembles in a perfect sharp-shooting serenade style, shining a strong and clear light, courtesy of designers Jane Cox (Broadway’s King Lear) and Tess James (CSC’s The Cradle Will Rock), on each of these talented souls’ strength of voice and character.
The Proprietor, played beautifully by Eddie Cooper (CSC’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ul) leads us in and sets out the stance of this exploration. “Hey, fella, feel like you’re a failure?” “Feel misunderstood? C’mere and kill a President.” It’s quite the intense idea set forth, with one after another of these wildly misguided characters stepping forward to receive their guns in a strange collective handout worthy of a graduation ceremony or religious communion. It draws us in, through utter cynicism and a discomfort that stems from America’s deep and violent fascination with these killing machines. The framework creates a chorus line of would-be assassins trying to lay claim on some sort of fame or acknowledgment, growing up from a frustration with the American ideal that has seemingly passed them by. They parade forward, telling us their tale, asking us to understand or at least see their destructive tendencies. It’s a strongly framed structure, filled to the brim, oddly enough, of great humor and introspection that delivers some of the best and most entertaining performances in town, shooting their strengths at the circle overhead. Even when they miss the bullseye, the intended target of this wisely crafted musical is solid, centered hit.
Leading a segment of the talent parade is Judy Kuhn (Broadway’s Fun Home) as the dim-witted failed assassin Sara Jane Moore, who shines ridiculously bright and funny throughout this 105 minute one act musical. Her performance is energetic and focused in a pathetic and eager to please manner, especially when she showeres us with her kooky charm in the wondrous “Gun Song“. Matched and paired with the equally odd-ball lady killer, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a kooky passionate follower of Charles Manson, Tavi Gevinson (MCC’s Moscow x6) plays her to perfection never misfiring on an opportunity to bring something special and smart to every line. Becoming somewhat iconic when they clumsily attempt to assassinate President Ford in 1975, it turns out, in reality, they were not in it together, but Sondheim’s pairing of these two in John Weidman’s priceless book is as Colonel-Sanders spectacular as a fired-on bucket of fried chicken. John Hinckley, wisely played by the talented Adam Chanler-Berat (Broadway’s Amélie), is more widely known for his attempt to murder President Reagan in 1981. He gets a number of beautifully funny moments, but the one with the fascinating Squeaky, delivering and sparring with Gevinson in the deliciously engaging number, “Unworthy of Your Love” is a one of the many highlights of the show. The two attempt to compare obsessive love: Jodie Foster Vs Manson. And who’s to say who the crazier one is? Or the more talented actor? I just can’t.
Then there is Andy Grotelueschen (Broadway’s Tootsie) as the Santa Clause suit-wearing Samuel Byck, who states with a wild abandonment, “All I want for Christmas is my Constitutional right!” He drives like a maniac, never getting himself close to the act of hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House, in a failed attempt to kill President Nixon. But Grotelueschen does the complete opposite of failing here in his hilarious car ride scene to the airport. He isn’t given a musical moment to really shine, but his monologue is high-wired memorable and utterly captivating.
“I want prize! You gimme prize!” This idea of wanting hangs over the heads of these outcasts, pushing them to act out, like Charles Guiteau, played most handsomely and hilariously by Will Swenson (Off-Broadway’s Jerry Springer: The Opera), known for shooting James Garfield at the Buffalo State Fair, His energy and song and dance number is pure electric fun, and Leon Czolgosz, as portrayed dynamically by Brandon Uranowitz (Encores! Off-Center’s Road Show), historically remembered for his assassination attempt on President McKinley in 1901, finds engagement and connection at every turn of the gun barrel. They believed in the boogus American Dream, yet found themselves thrashed down by that same ideal, frustrated, betrayed and angry. Wesley Taylor (Broadway Center Stage’s Tommy) as Guiseppe Zangara who failed in his assassination attempt of President Roosevelt in 1933, wanted that prize most intently, turning his frustration into rage once he discovered the unmentionable truth in that Dream. Each and everyone of these gifted actors find moments upon moments to delivery the goods with appeal and relish.
But it all revolves around John Wilkes Booth, who wanted so desperately to be seen as a national hero, believing that “Everbody gets a shot” and that shot is the violent act of killing a President. Steven Pasquale (LCT’s Junk) embodies that man fully and gorgeously, gifting the stage with a powerful performance that rivels all that stood in those same shoes before. Standing tall, handsome, and strong, both vocally and physically, he easily leads these characters to their infamous end while shedding light on their situations and motives. Shooting sharp and on-target, Pasquale, reprising the role that he most beautifully performed in 2017 at NYCC Encores!, finds theatrical truth in the making of so many ungrounded promises to his trigger-happy gullible crew. Standing strong by his side, guitar in hand, the equally talented Ethan Slater (Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants), portrays both the Balladeer and the most captivating Lee Harvey Oswald around. “They say you killed a country, John / Because of bad reviews,” sings the Slater’s Balladeer, but this production of Assassins has nothing to worry about in that regard. The reviews are strong, and the promises made are not broken by the Classic Stage Company, who finds power once again in Sondheim and in the idea of telling these stories simply, pistol-perfect and delivering them right on target.
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Jason Robert Brown’s The Connector Is Intelligent, Thought Provoking and Musically Seamless
“The truth is not about the facts – forgive me. The facts can always be manipulated, arranged, massaged – We are not purveyors of facts, we are tellers of truths.” …..Or are we?
The Connector now playing at at MCC’s Newman Mills Theater space, has twice been extended and in all honesty should move to Broadway this season. If it did it would stands a massive chance of being nominated or winning Best Musical, Best Score, Best Orchestration, Best Direction, Best Lead Actor and many of the technical awards. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sweeps the Drama Desk and The Outer Critics Circle Awards come award season.
Set in 1996 at a newspaper called “The Connector”, this unrivaled purveyor of “the truth and nothing but the truth,” is about to be put to the test. Enter Ethan Dobson (the remarkable Ben Levi Ross), fresh out of Princeton who’s arrived with talent, guts and a smarmy style.
Ethan has long admired and longs to work for the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Conrad O’Brien (welcome back to the fabulous Scott Bakula), who is being over run by new owners, who care more about circulation and the color turquoise, than facts.
The first person Ethan meets and the voice of a collective conscience is Robin Martinez (normally played by Hannah Cruz, but at my performance Ashley Pérez Flanagan). At first attracted to Ethan, Robin starts to see the cracks, as does fact checker, Muriel (a layered performance by Jessica Molaskey). Right from the start, she does not like or trust Ethan. Nor do we. In a strange way, this almost seems like a musicalized version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.
As Conrad takes Ethan under his wing, we see three of his stories, each done in a different musical style. The first is about an eccentric West Village scrabble player (the terrific Max Crumm). With a “Rhythm of Life” feel, Ethan becomes an over night success with circulation increasing and a fan by the name of Mona Bland (a memorable Mylinda Hull) who will end up being his downfall.
The next story is about the take down of the mayor of Jersey City, done in rap/ gangland style that gets him a nomination for the prestigious National Magazine Award. As his source Willis, Fergie Philippe gives his all, but the problem we soon find out, is that though the story is sensational, there are gaping holes in the facts, which Muriel, Robin and Mona glaringly see.
In the end who is Ethan really? What is truth and what is fact? Does the public really care or do they just want sensationalism? Has the world really gotten over its sexism? It’s racialism? Sadly, I don’t think so. Everything becomes the movie of the week and then goes away until the next big scandal.
The Connector was conceived and directed by Daisy Prince, who does a remarkable job and asks some really intelligent questions. She has also gathered a fabulous cast, who makes this show seem real, relevant and up to date.
Ben Levi Ross will remind you of Jessie Einsenburg. He is loaded with talent. Not only does he posses a vocal prowess that is unmatched, his nuances and phenomenal acting choices make him so watchable. He is like an onion slowly peeling away each delicate layer. He is seriously brilliant.
As Robin, I saw the understudy who is about to take over the role, Ashley Pérez Flanagan. She sings and acts well, but lacks some of the nuances that originally made me want to see this show. I fell in love with the song “Cassandra” in 2017 and either Jason Robert Brown rewrote some of the notes or they were different in the production I saw. This song is pivotal to the show, as the lyrics talk about how women writers are written off.
“Half the stories of the world are left unwritten, half the stories have been lost along the way. And so the people of the world will not encounter, anything but one perspective, one reflection, one directive, male and white and unenlightened, every day. It’s easy for you, it’s easy for you and I’m missing it”
These are the lyrics by Jason Robert Brown for “Cassandra”. Not only is his music rich in rhythm and style, but it reaches into your soul to take capture. His lyrics hit at the heart of pain, truth, anger and honesty. Each song is a playlet with character-driven narratives and stand on their own. Smartly his band is electric and musically I could sit through this show every night of the week and hear new emotional tugs. I am so excited to announce the album will be released in late spring by Concord Theatricals Recording, because I want to listen to these songs again and again. A plus is JRB is on the piano playing with his band.
Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book is funny, terrifying and taps on timely issues, however I did want more as to the why’s and psychology of Ethan, but maybe that’s the point, we don’t understand the why’s and never will.
Not only is the show wonderfully done, but the raw masterful set by Beowulf Boritt, lighting by and projection design by Janette Oi-Suk Yew and choreography by Karla Puno Garcia are shear perfection.
You will not be able to stop thinking about this show, that is full of thought provoking ideas on journalistic integrity and the difference between fact and truth. This is a show not to be missed and that’s a fact.
The Connector: MCC Theater Space, 511 W 52nd Street, through March 17th.
Opening Night of A Sign Of The Times
The York Theatre Company production of A Sign of the Times, opened officially at New World Stages. A Sign of the Times, is a new musical featuring the songs of Petula Clark, Lesley Gore, Dusty Springfield and other classic pop hits of the 1960s. It features a book by Lindsey Hope Pearlman based on an original story by Richard J. Robin. Directing is Gabriel Barre, with music direction and orchestrations by Joseph Church and choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter.
On the red carpet were Lindsey Hope Perlman,Gabriel Barre., Richard J Robin, Joseph Church (opening picture)
NYTW’s “I Love You So Much I Could Die” Asks A Lot From You. Are You Willing?
I’ve seen several one-person shows this past week, 3 to be exact (Grand’s Huff, Tarragon’s Guilt, & TPM’s As I Must Live It); sorta 4 if you don’t want to get toooo technical about it all (Soulpepper’s De Profundis). And each one engaged our emotional soul in differing and unique manners. I couldn’t help myself thinking about that theoretical construct as I watched Mona Pirnot, writer and performer of I Love You. So Much I Could Die, walk in from behind, down the stairs, and onto the bare minimalistic set at the downtown New York Theatre Workshop. She sits, facing away from us all, staring upright at the back walk of exposed brick, and turns on her laptop and types a few things in to get this exercise rolling. And I was struck by the abstractionism we were about to sit through for the next 65 minutes. It was clearly going to be a different experience than any of these other shows I experienced last week, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to respond to this setup.
It’s a structural theoretical experience, one destined to play mind tricks with almost every person in the audience. Pirnot (NYTW’s Usual Suspect) never turns to face us with the story she wants to tell. It’s unclear why at the beginning, but as she unleashes her story, not with her own voice, but with the voice of her computer, Microsoft text-to-speech tool, the complicated, and frustrating, unwrapping becomes more and more clear. It’s a completely devastating tale of pain and tragedy that she has set out to detail, most effectively in her “cut to” tense listing of events. And she doesn’t have the voice to actually say it out loud. It’s too much. Too difficult to vocalize. She has the words, obviously, and the wit and strength, but not the voice. Unless she is singing a sad song of sorry, or love, accompanying herself with her trusted guitar that sits, oddly enough, facing us on the wide expanse of the stage.
The story is spoken out to us from that Microsoft voice, somewhat flat and awkward, distancing ourselves and her from the horribly sad and dark moments of an accident of some sort that incapacitated (to put it mildly) her sister during that complicated timeframe of the pandemic when visiting a loved one in the hospital was just not allowed. It seems she needs that disconnect to really tell us that tale; of that difficult and chaotic time in Florida where she spent months trying to survive her emotional self and the space she found herself with her husband; the playwright and ultimately the director of this show Lucas Hnath (Broadway’s A Doll’s House, Part 2). It’s an understandable predicament, one that I’ve always praised when an actor can tell us such a sad tale and maintain their voice, so I wrestled with that inside my head, somewhat distractively, during her unpacking, and somehow came out the other end understanding and sympathizing with the theory and experiment.
Using that flat computer tone and by staying turned away, she is able to unwind a story that may cripple her if she had to look us in the eye and tell us personally about her pain. I get that entirely, but I wasn’t convinced at the beginning (and maybe a little at the end as well) that this kind of confessional makes for good theatre. I soon discovered that there was little to look at on that stage after the initial few minutes, even with the fine work done by scenic designer Mimi Lien (Broadway’s Sweeney Todd), the fading lighting design mastery of Oona Curley (NYTW’s runboyrun & In Old Age), the simplistic but meaningful costume design by Enver Chakartash (PH’s Stereophonic), and the solid expanding sound design by Mikhail Fiksel (NYTW’s How To Defend Yourself). I could engage during the few musical interludes that filled the space with her lovely voice singing touching songs of sadness and love, but during the other moments, especially the “cut to” scenarios and a sad tale revolving around sickness and death, I could look away, stare at the floor or the wall of ladders that were to my left, and just dive into those flat words with abandonment.
It’s not the simplest experience to endure, and endear, but there is another level, maybe one that director Hnath has played with before in his experimental Dana H., which played both off-Broadway and on (and on a Toronto stage next month that I hope to see) where we have to pull out internal connections to our own pain and sadness to really engulf ourselves in this somewhat slim play. It’s the flatness and metallic quality of the voice that forces us to find what we feel about the tale she is telling. Not an exercise of taking on what an actor is somehow transmitting to us, in a way, telling us how to feel about the pain being described. I’m crying, so you should be too. I’m laughing at this part, so you should laugh too. No one is giving us a sign or direction in the way we should be experiencing this, so we must look deep inside ourselves if we are to really embrace it.
Or we don’t have to. That is the other option. We can let the computer voice give us permission to nod off, and not engage with this terrible event she needs to tell us, nor the love and care she experienced from her husband. Pirnot tells us flat out (in a NYTimes interview), that she “couldn’t find the strength to verbalize her feelings to [Hnath] or her therapist … she typed her thoughts into her laptop, and prompted a text-to-speech program to voice them aloud.” Makes sense, even to this writer (who is also a psychotherapist in his real day job). Does it make great theatre? That is a question that only each audience member can decide for themselves, inside and within that very moment, as they sit in the ever-darkening theatre listening to I Love You So Much I Could Die. Do I dig deep and engage with my own emotional self, led there by no other person but myself? Or do I decide to not go there? Both are credible options, with very different outcomes. You decide. Dig deep or go home. And I won’t judge you for which you choose. I chose one-way last night. I can’t tell you what I might have chosen on a different night. That’s pretty impossible to know.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
FIVE: The Parody Musical Meets The Press
Look out SIX, here comes FIVE: The Parody Musical. Henry VIII and his six wives had nothing on Donald, the 45th, and these five ladies. This morning they met the press.
FIVE is an irreverent musical comedy revue starring Anyae Anasia as Ivana, Gabriella Joy Rodriguez (The Color Purple) as Marla, Jaime Lyn Beatty (Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical) as Melania, Gabi Garcia as Stormy, Hannah Bonnett (Legally Blonde national tour) as Ivanka, and Jasmine Rice LaBeija as Hillary Clinton.
Featuring a book and lyrics by Shimmy Braun and Moshiel Newman Daphna and music and lyrics by Billy Recce (A Musical About Star Wars), directed and choreographed by Jen Wineman, the production features orchestrations and arrangements by Terence “T” Odonkor, music supervision and arrangements by Lena Gabrielle, scenic design by David Goldstein, costume design by Florence D’Lee, lighting design by Marie Yokoyama, sound design by UptownWorks, hair and wig design by Ian Joseph, and props by Brendan McCann. Mark Osgood is production stage manager.
FIVE begins its run Off-Broadway at Theater 555 February 15. Opening night is February 19, and the limited engagement will continue through March 10.
Russian Troll Farm; a Comedy About Dirty Politics, Dirty Russians and Dirty Trolls
“As I researched the IRA’s (the Internet Research Agency) activities, I started getting this uncomfortable feeling that … I might be really great at this job. Trolls spend all day making up characters, writing dialogue, staging fights, triggering strong emotions … essentially, they’re playwrights!” Sarah Gancher in her program notes.
Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy takes us back to the time before the 2016 presidential election. Here truth, facts, manipulation, propaganda are in question — or are they?
We are transported to the real-life organization, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. The agency employed fake accounts registered on major social networking sites attempting to influence the 2016 United States presidential election. On February 16, 2018, a United States grand jury indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency, on charges of violating criminal laws with the intent to interfere “with U.S. elections and political processes”, according to the Justice Department.
What Russian Troll Farm does is introduce us to the people inside. We have Egor (Haskell King), who is into his job or is it the people he meets on-line? Steve (a fabulous John Lavelle) who is on high octane, intimidating others and getting off on 4chan. The supervisor of the floor Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal), whose marriage got him the job and whose chemistry with newcomer Masha (Renata Friedman) a former journalist will be his downfall. Heading them to their dark demise is Ljuba (Christine Lahti), a woman of steel who used to be a KGB senior manager, whose sexuality could get her axed.
Like life, the most manipulative see and seek ways to destroy the fold, simply for fun and control.
Darko Tresnjak’s direction keeps us at a distance from being too pulled in. It feels as if we are watching a tragedy that has no hope.
Lavelle makes this play thoroughly entertaining, reminding us of Jack Black, as he mops up the stage. He is a frat boy who will never grow up and is still playing those repulsive childish games, just because he can. Christine Lahti’s story is the most human, but it comes out of left field.
The set by Alexander Dodge is sterile and Jared Mezzocchi’s projections with titles to let us know whose game it is are confusing.
There are many who will love Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, I just think it lost track of what it was trying to say.
Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy: Vineyard Theatre, 108 E 15th Street through February 25.
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