Review: Geneva Underground Playhouse’s Assassins

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: John Weidman
Location: Geneva Underground Playhouse
Director: Craig Gustafson
Music Director: Kathleen Dooley

Not long ago I went with a friend to see Geneva Underground Playhouse’s latest foray into musical theatre: Stephan Sondheim’s Assassins.

Set up as a revue-style show placed in a carnival style game of “Shoot a President”, this musical goes through the motivations of a fraction of the men and women how have either successfully or attempted to assassinate a President of the United States.

The musical being written in the 1980s/1990s, the most recent of the assassination attempts in the musical would be that of Gerald Ford, while the first would be that of Abraham Lincoln. Below is a list of the assassins whose motivations are explored in the show:
Successful Assassins
– John Wilkes Booth: assassin of President Abraham Lincoln
– Charles Guiteau: assassin of President James Garfield
– Leon Czolgosz: assassin of President William McKinley
– Lee Harvey Oswald: assassin of President John F. Kennedy
Failed Assassination Attempts
– Giuseppe Zangara: attempted assassin of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt
– Samuel Byck: attempted assassin of President Richard Nixon
– John Hinckley: attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan
– Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme: attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford
– Sara Jane Moore: attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford

Anyway… enough of the history-ish lesson. Let’s get to the show…

The first thing that caught my eye was just how small the stage/set and the pit orchestra were. The pit orchestra is comprised of only five musicians:
– Kathleen Dooley: Conductor / Keyboard
– Andrew Manion: Percussion
– Gary Patterson: Guitar / Banjo / Mandolin
– Cathie Kukec: Flute / Piccolo
– Josh Kukec: Soprano Sax / Alto Sax
Even with such a small orchestra the sound was fairly full, accompanying the vocalist from underneath and the balance was rather well done.

The stage was also rather small, as my friend would say “the size of a postage stamp”! Not too far from the truth. One side is a little bar that doubles as a carnival game of shooting the moving targets, on the other side is a wall for target practice with silhouettes of various presidents. There is a platform at the center of the stage with doorways on either side… a rather simple set up but it makes so much sense in the grand scheme of things.

In most community theatre productions I have come across, the majority of the cast are fairly middle of the road talent while a small fraction would just shine across the stage. In the case of this production (much like with NTP’s Into the Woods), every single cast member was a strong individual vocalist and actor. Unlike NTP’s Into the Woods, this production’s cast was a cohesive unit, even though most of the characters in the cast were individuals with no real rhyme or reason to interact. However they did a fantastic job of interacting with one another and creating a chemistry that was not only natural but palpable.

For the most part I was drawn into the individual stories of the various assassins featured, but because this is a revue with no intermission, it wasn’t entirely engaging enough for me to keep myself from looking at the program or checking the time. So there were some aspects of the production that did bore me in some capacity or another… though at the moment it is difficult to know what that can be.

The vocalist of the opening number “Everybody’s Got the Right” (Rod Kelly) felt weak to me. Not weak in the sense that his voice did not project nearly as much as anyone else or was far too soft, so it was rather difficult to hear him at times, which was unfortunate.

On the other side of the coin we have Garrett Ard as the Balladeer whose voice was not only strong and well projected but engaging as well. It was almost as if when you are hearing Garrett sing, you don’t necessarily hear the character sing, you are hearing him sing. Kind of makes you wonder (despite his engaging singing voice and characterization) if he could branch out beyond himself? That would be something to look into should I have a chance to see him perform again.

Despite that minor flaw… I did find myself waiting anxiously until the Balladeer came back to sing again, because although the remainder of the cast was engaging and strong vocally you can tell that the Balladeer was more or less the strength and glue of the group. Not at all a surprise considering that the Balladeer was a kind of narrator in this show.

Mind you of all of Sondheim’s shows, Assassins is probably the one that I relate to the least… so consequently I never really had a urge to see this show in any capacity other than to hang out with a friend. What ended up happening is that the production was well done, especially in such a small space, the cast and crew did a more than respectable job… particularly in keeping my interest.

Considering that the current weekend is the last weekend of the production I would recommend seeing this production if you want to see a revue. If you’re not a Sondheim fan then this might not be a show for you to see. However, if you’re looking for something to do this weekend, that won’t last long then this production (which clocks at under two hours) is something that you should consider looking into.