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Insanity in America?

Musical review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jul 3rd, 2016

The cast of Sondheim's Assassins at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck.

Teaser photo courtesy of Southern Dutchess News.

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins (1990) at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck enjoys depth of talent. The two lead singers, Kolrick Greathouse as Balladeer and Justin Stockslager as John Wilkes Booth, are alone worth the price of admission. Malley Heinlein as Sarah Jane Moore and Vera Perry as Squeakey Fromme (two incompetent would-be assassins of Gerald Ford) offer terrific comic relief and good voice. Alex Perry as Sam Byck (would be assassin of Richard Nixon) provides a riveting character performance. This well-sung and well-acted ensemble remains a joy, yet the script is not Sondheim at his best.

This surreal fable outside of time (influenced by Michael Bulgakov and based upon an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.) about a carnival circus of mentally unstable downtrodden souls who become legendary demons employs the showbiz lens of stardom as the explanation for a cultural obsession for fame: one can redeem one’s own insignificance by attaining fame through the barrel of a gun. This cultural thread certainly contains a contemporary resonance. However, improvements in Presidential security have currently focused on the demonic dream of inflicting record kills and casualties on innocent people.

The climax of the play portrays a psychopathic Lee Harvey Oswald (Max Green, who does well with a poorly written role). A demon (John Wilkes Booth) gives the famous antique Italian rifle to Oswald. Since 1990 it has been conclusively proved that Oswald never owned that gun, that the photos of him with the gun were photo-shopped, that the paperwork delivery of the gun were forgeries, that the single bullet bolt action rifle was “shot” from the wrong direction, that the gun could never even do what had been accomplished that fatal day in Dallas. After the enthusiastic curtain call I mentioned this to the unknown gentleman sitting next to me who replied: “Sondheim wrote the play too close in time to the assassination.” The problem is that the ending of the play is weakened not by having characters stand outside of time, but by employing false propaganda. Also, the silly song about assassins having three names instead of two offers sheer inanity.

And yet this excellent production presents an interesting meditation on American history, which is why I recommend the play and production as stimulating. The fact that the mentally disturbed still have legal access to guns is still mentally disturbing. What we need to celebrate is the mental stability of our Founding Fathers—and that is basically Sondheim’s pointed satiric edge at times. Too bad the script collapses in cliché with a false climax. Yet there is much talent on the boards to enjoy and admire! There's magnificent ensemble singing in "How I Saved Roosevelt" and "Something Just Broke." Music by Paul and JoAnne Schubert has the energy in this well-directed effort by Ellen Honig.

This performance (well-timed around our Fourth of July celebrations) runs for two hours without intermission. It will run through July 17. Tickets can be purchased on-line at: www.centerforperforming or call (845) 876-3080.