“Assassins” Hits the Bullseye at Gem
By Tom Titus
There is, on the stage of Garden Grove’s Gem Theater, a most exclusive private club consisting of five charter members, along with several honorary members who tried to join the club and took their best shot, but failed.
The members range, historically, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, while the wannabes include John Hinkley Jr., Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. By now, you’re probably aware that these are the characters from Stephen Sondheim’s dark but brilliant musical “Assassins.”
In director Beth Hansen’s spellbinding production, the setting resembles a high-end tavern in which a mysterious proprietor (Daniel Berlin) dispenses liquor and armaments, while serving as propmeister and setting up the vignettes from the more unfortunate pages of U.S. history.
One by one, both the assassinations and bungled attempts are played out, beginning with Booth, a radical, racist Southerner who blamed Abraham Lincoln for starting the Civil War. He’s given a superb, invective-laced performance by Alex Bodrero, who later goads Oswald into taking a shot at John F. Kennedy.
The most flamboyant character in the cast is Charles Guiteau, whose delusions included an ambassadorship to France and who shot President James Garfield. This show-stealing role is played with all stops out by Damien Lorton, the theater’s artistic director, who turns his walk to the noose into a vaudeville exercise.
Guiseppe Zangara, who tried to kill FDR but failed (but who accidentally killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak), is portrayed as an embittered rabble rouser whose execution in the electric chair is grippingly depicted on stage. He’s played with venomous distaste by Danny Diaz.
The two women who tried to take down Gerald Ford are depicted as co-conspirators. Adriana Sanchez beautifully plays a clumsy matron, Sara Jane Moore, who keeps losing her gun, while Gretchen Dawson enacts the fiery Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme of Manson Family fame (or infamy). It’s a sharp change of pace for Sanchez, who recently excelled as “Evita” on the same stage.
Dawson’s Fromme encounters another failed shooter, John Hinkley Jr., played with passionate conviction by Tad Fujioka. They join in a duet celebrating their dedications – Fromme’s to Charles Manson, Hinkley’s to Jodie Foster prior to his wounding of Ronald Reagan.
Evan Guido depicts overflowing radicalism as Leon Csolgosz, the rebellious immigrant who killed President William McKinley and reportedly had an affair with anarchist Emma Goldman (a staunch Fiona Wynder).
Clad in a tattered Santa Claus suit, Chris Harper portrays the extremely deranged Samuel Byck, who attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon by flying a plane into the White House. His story doesn’t spring readily to mind, but Harper makes it come alive with a vengeance.
The balladeer, Brandon Taylor Jones, who celebrates their stories in song, later becomes Oswald, a perennial loser who makes his final murderous statement in Dallas, goaded by the silver-tongued Booth, along with the other shooters, past and future. It’s a piece marked by ensemble excellence as the others overcome Oswald’s hesitancy.
“Assassins” continues through Nov. 2 at the Gem, 12852 Main St. in Garden Grove, playing Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Call One More Productions at (714) 741-9550 or go online at http://www.onemoreproductions.com for ticket information.
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