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PHOTO BY KEN EK“Assassins” continues through May 22 at Civic Theatre of Allentown. Copyright - Kenneth Ek PHOTO BY KEN EK“Assassins” continues through May 22 at Civic Theatre of Allentown. Copyright - Kenneth Ek

Theater Review: Civic’s ‘Assassins’ is chilling and provocative

Thursday, May 12, 2016 by Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

Civic Theatre of Allentown’s production of “Assassins” is stunning.

It’s so stunning that after you see the Stephen Sondheim musical about assassins and would-be assassins of United States’ presidents, you may stay riveted in your seat after its conclusion.

I know I did, as did several sitting in the row that I was in at the 19th Street Theatre after the May 7 performance. “Assassins” continues through May 22 at Civic Theatre of Allentown.

Yes, it’s a “Stephen Sondheim musical about assassins and would-be assassins of United States’ presdents.”

How, you might ask, could anyone make a musical about that?

Well, Sondheim did. Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics. John Weidman wrote the book for the musical, which is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

The Civic production more than does “Assassins,” ahem, justice. Director William Sanders explores the context of the text and the psychology of the lyrics, revealing insights into not only the psyches of the assassins and would-be assassins, but the American psyche. It’s: American psychos meets American psyche.

Set designer Jason Sherwood, working with Lighting Designer Will Morris and Scenic Artist Jan Joyce, stages “Assassins” against a backdrop of thin charred wood planks covered in LED lights that are used at times to outline an image of the American flag.

Technical Director Alexander Michaels utilizes a scrim lowered toward the musical’s conclusion on which the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination is projected. It’s a chllling reminder that, while we are watching a play, it’s one based on real events too horrific and too frequent to imagine.

While I cannot provide statistics for other western nations, presented as a group as the Sondheim-Weidman musical does, it seems there’ve been an awful lot (nine represented in the play) of assassinations and assassination attempts on American presidents.

What’s wrong with these people? “Assassins” has no answers. It provides a disturbing view into one of the United States’ most sorry trends.

“Assassins” is book-ended, if you will, by the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth (brilliantly portrayed by Jarrod Yuskauskas) and the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald (portrayed with impressive accuracy by Matt Meckes).

In between, and not necessarily in chronological order in the musical, there’s:

The 1881 assassination of President James Garfield by Charles Guiteau (Kirk Lawrence, who conveys the banality of evil).

The 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz (Will Morris, who creates a really scary portrayal).

The 1933 attempted assassinaton of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt by Guiseppe Zangara (Alex Michaels, played as a wild man).

The 1974 attempted assassination of President Richard Nixon by Samuel Byck (Robert Trexler as a sad disillusioned and broken character).

The 1975 attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Kristen Stachina in a revelatory role that is frighteningly convincing).

The 1975 attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by Sara Jane Moore (Tracy Ceschin, who puts forth a brassy portrayal of a hate-filled person).

The 1981 attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John W. Hinckley, Jr. (Zachary Einstein, who manages to capture a small twisted smugness).

You may have not known of all of them, or remembered them.

Sanders keeps many of the actors on stage in character, as if ghosts. The use of funhouse mirrors and the actors donning their costumes lends a jarring yet oddly reassuring sense that, yes, this is a play. Sanders keeps the emphasis on the songs and the subjects, with the actors playing it straight. Associate Director is Melissa Klausner. Production Stage Manager is Emily Heller.

In supporting roles are JoAnn Basist (Emma Goldman), Michael Scuotto (David Herold), Ken Butler (James Blaine) and Wyatt Root (Billy).

The attire by Costume Designer Will Morris and Hair & Wigs by Kim Danish is authentic to each era. Sound Designer is Helena Confer. Propmaster is Jason Sizemore.

As might be expected, there are a lot of gunshots, some of them quite loud.

While there are no hummable tunes per se, there are many memorable lyrics, among the nine songs.

As the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations bookend “Assassins,” the performances of Yuskauskas and Meckes pace the show.

Yuskauskas opens the show in splendid voice with “Everybody’s Got the Right,” which, in a reprise, concludes the show. “You want to shoot a president?” he sings solidly. “Assassins” does not mince words.

Meckes, who is the show’s Music Director, draws great choral singing from the cast, and also plays the Balladeer in “The Ballad of Booth” and other songs. Conductor Steve Reisteter and the 13-piece orchestra perform the challenging Sondheim score with force and panache.

The lyric, “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” begs the question: Even if that right includes assassinations?

These are the kinds of questions “Assassins” raises or at least gets you to think about. Booth’s assassination plot is blamed, in part, on “a slew of bad reviews” for the rather well-known actor of his day.

While each assassination seems to have been an isolated incident as taught in the history books, “Assassins” weaves them together as a whole, in song and lyric, and in the dialogue of the assassins to each other. It’s an amazing construct, one so obvious and simple that you wonder why no one put it all together before. Well, Sondheim did. And Civic Theatre’s “Assassins” does.

Tickets: Civic Theatre Box Office, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; CivicTheatre.com, 610-432-8943