REVIEW: Avon Players’ ‘Assassins’ Takes Aim at The American Dream

There’s something oddly ironic about watching a play—a musical no less—that centers around presidential assassins on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. And yet that’s where I found myself on Sunday along with what looked to be a full house. Truthfully, Avon Players could not have picked a timelier topic to open their 2016 – 2017 season considering anything remotely political seems to have taken over our lives. From Lin-Manuel Miranda making Alexander Hamilton must-see theatre (11 Tony Awards® don’t lie), to our nation being gripped by the reality-type hype around whose ‘got next’ for the Oval Office, we are fascinated by what motivates those in politics to act the way they do. While unfamiliar with Assassins, I had just finished reading The Fifth Assassin by University of Michigan Law School alum and author Brad Meltzer, which centers around the discovery of a connection linking the four successful presidential assassins by John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Lee Harvey Oswald with a modern-day killer who is recreating their crimes. Needless to say, the subject matter was fresh in my mind when the house lights dimmed and I was intrigued to see how it would be presented in a theatrical production. Assassians Logo

Set against the backdrop of a carnival shooting gallery, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, Assassins takes a closer look at nine presidential killers: the four mentioned above who successfully found their mark, and the five—Giuseppe Zangara (FDR), Samuel Byck (Richard Nixon), Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, Sara Jane Moore (both Gerald Ford), and John Hinckley, Jr. (Ronald Reagan)—who came awfully close. The play opens with each assassin standing in front of their president, holding a gun while singing “Everybody’s Got The Right”:

“Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine-rich man, poor man, black or white.

Pick your apple, take a bite. Everybody just hold tight to your dreams.

Everybody’s got the right to their dreams…”

Hmm. This concept definitely sounds familiar.

In essence each assassin is singing about his or her dissatisfaction with the American Dream they were promised, and the one they are living. Kim Monterosso as Samuel Byck does a fantastic job of conveying this sentiment, especially during his second monologue. And it is this disillusionment with the commander-in-chief that leads each assassin to believe what he or she is doing is for the greater good. They all truly believe in the reasons they have for wanting the president dead. But when you boil it down, what they actually want is to be noticed… heard… and appreciated (“Another National Anthem”). Theirs is a tale of two Americas. The America that consists of those they believe have everything, like the president, and those who toil in obscurity, like themselves.

From left to right: Kyle Mason (of Rochester Hills) as The Balladeer and Scott Wickson (of Clarkston) as John Wilkes Booth. Photo Credit: Bryan Clifford

From left to right: Kyle Mason (of Rochester Hills) as The Balladeer and Scott Wickson (of Clarkston) as John Wilkes Booth. Photo Credit: Bryan Clifford

John Wilkes Booth (played with panache by Scott Wickson) gets the ball rolling, and is soon joined by the Balladeer (Kyle Mason), who we learn appears with each of the ‘successful’ assassins and serves as sort of interpreter to the audience. He takes time discussing with the assassin why he did it and concluding why in the end nothing really changes because of it. Since Booth is the elder of this mixed bag of misfits, it seems fitting that he finds a way to weave himself into almost all the other assassin’s stories as sort of a mentor, and in some instances an instigator. For example, when he’s trying to convince Lee Harvey Oswald (Steve Grady) to kill Kennedy, he says with conviction, “You have the power of Pandora’s Box, Lee. Open it!” The other assassins follow Booth’s lead in getting Oswald to pull the trigger by letting him know without him they’re just ‘footnotes in history.’ In a roundabout way, Oswald’s action justifies those assassins who came before him and those who come after.

This play also provides an opportunity to imagine ‘what-if.’ What-if the assassins had known one another. Picture John Hinckley, Jr. (Brian Stanczak-Tuscany) and Lynette Fromme (Lori Smith) comparing who loved their obsession (actress Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively) more while singing “Unworthy of Your Love.” Or if Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Amy Lynn Smith) had been besties. Neither woman knew each other, yet they both tried to kill Gerald Ford less than 20 days a part. In the play their comedic scenes reminded me of Laverne and Shirley. That is of course if Laverne and Shirley had been more into pot and Charles Manson than milk and Pepsi and Carmine. But to their credit, not too many actors can make a botched assassination attempt as funny as these two women did. I’d see the play again just for their scenes.

While funny at times, Assassins is by no means a lighthearted musical. What it is, is a thought provoking and relatable piece of well-executed theatre that shows audiences who are willing to pay attention and acknowledge that even with the progress our country has made over the years, there are still at times two very different versions of the American Dream.

If you go, keep in mind this play contains some language and drug use, and of course loud gun noises. Directed by John (JD) Deierlein and produced by Peggy Deierlein, Assassins runs September 16 – 18 and September 23 – 24. Tickets are $22 ($20 on Sundays for students and Seniors) and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 248.608.9077.

Want to be part of the action? Auditions for the next production, Forever Christmas will be held Monday, September 19 and Tuesday, September 20.

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About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

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