The presidential debates are upon us, Election Day is just a few weeks away, and two local theater companies are getting into the spirit of the thing by staging gleefully perverse musicals about the U.S. presidency.
The 1990 musical Assassins is actually about the flipside of the institution of the presidency—the extremely embittered people who now and again try to kill the president, whether or not they succeed. More than that, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and John Weidman’s book posit this dark historical undercurrent as the flipside of the American Dream: We’re promised that anyone can make it in America, and if people come to feel that this promise is a lie and someone has to pay for that, who better than the president of the United States?
The show also portrays actual and attempted presidential assassins from Lincoln slayer John Wilkes Booth down to thwarted Reagan shooter John Hinkley Jr. as a family of oddly compelling misfits, allowing them to interact with each other in a timeless space regardless of whether they were even alive at the same time. Sondheim’s songs ingeniously sample American musical styles of different time periods to give a taste of the era from which each assassin hails.
Shotgun Players’ production of Assassins is directed by Susannah Martin, who helmed a dynamic Threepenny Opera for the company in 2009. Nina Ball’s intriguing set displays a gazebo plastered with vaudeville and circus posters and ringed by an eight-piece orchestra. Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design adds ominous mechanical noises that are hard to identify as signifying anything specific.
Jeff Garrett is a ghoulish, leering carny barker in a bowler and candy-striped shirt, with a somewhat harsh singing voice. (The fanciful costumes by Christine Crook are more entertaining than convincing.) He’s always there to egg the assassins on, often silently, while Kevin Singer’s Balladeer watches them ruefully and tries to sing some sense into them. Singer has a pleasant voice and earnestness as the Balladeer. Strapped around his neck is a banjo that he sometimes plays, though he really, really shouldn’t, as his leaden strumming interferes with some otherwise delightful songs.
Galen Murphy-Hoffman’s John Wilkes Booth has a sweet voice and seductive charisma that makes his fuming anti-Lincoln lament oddly touching, despite a perplexing accent that starts off sounding as much Slavic as Southern. He also acts as a sort of ringleader for this motley crew, giving them a focus and outlet for their discontent.
As most of the others vie for the mike to give their delightfully bouncy musical testimonials of “How I Saved Roosevelt,” Aleph Ayin fumes as dyspeptic, heavily accented Italian immigrant Guiseppe Zangara, who seemingly gunned for FDR just because had a stomach ache and figured he’d better shoot someone. Similarly neutral about his target but with a deeper and more soulful discontent is factory worker Leon Czolgosz, who acted because no one cared about men like him being worked to death. Sung with mellifluous intensity by Dan Saski, Czolgosz’s solemn refrain that “it takes many men to make a gun” is deeply affecting in “Gun Sung,” which becomes a delicious barbershop quartet with Booth, Charles Guiteau and Sara Jane Moore.
Although her Emma Goldman feels a bit like a kid playing grownup, Rebecca Castelli is very funny as the scatterbrained Moore, particularly in her interaction with fellow attempted Ford assassin Squeaky Fromme. Cody Metzer has an amusing wide-eyed zealotry as Manson acolyte Fromme. Her love duet with Danny Cozart’s introverted John Hinkley Jr. is one of the musical highlights of the show (with her singing to Manson and him to Jodie Foster), despite some harmonies that don’t quite connect.
Another favorite is “The Ballad of Charles Guiteau,” an upbeat ode to the colorful Garfield assassin and cockeyed optimist Charles Guiteau. With wild rat-tail mustachios pointing every which way, Steven Hess is amusingly deluded as this man who firmly believes that he can be whatever he sets his mind to, and woe betide any who stand in his way, though in Hess’s portrayal you can always glimpse the desperate insecurity lurking just under the surface of his sunny bravado, especially as he defiantly cakewalks to the scaffold.
Lee Harvey Oswald plays a central role in tying it all together, as a sort of savior to elevate his colleagues from a sideshow of misfits into a force of history, but how he enters is too much of a spoiler if you’ve never seen the show. The actor who plays him, however, is more convincing in his other role than as the squirrelly and reluctant sniper.
Martin’s production is sometimes rough around the edges, and the pace drags during the nonsinging scenes of assassins interacting, but one thing that’s interesting about this staging is that it does particularly well with the trickier parts of the show.
Ryan Drummond’s furiously bitter monologue as Sam Byck, an out-of-work tire salesman who planned to fly a plane into the White House to kill Richard Nixon, is startlingly compelling, particularly because that section is usually one of the weak links of the musical.
Similarly, Martin does something very clever and tremendously effective with the weakest song, “Something Just Broke,” about the nation’s collective shock and horror when a president is killed. At first the where-I-was-when-I-heard testimonials in song are heard only in prerecorded form, as the actors stand around listening intently. When they do finally take over singing the song live, the effect is haunting, like they’ve really been swept up in something that’s already in the air. When it segues back into a reprise of the seductive anthem “Everybody’s Got the Right to Be Happy,” it’s chilling, because the play really makes you feel the gunmen’s frustration at feeling they’ve been swindled by life on the streets that were supposed to be paved with gold. In a country that enshrines the pursuit of happiness, “everybody’s got the right to their dreams,” they sing. Those dreams are the American dream, and when those dreams are crushed, some of the dreamers are bound to take it personally.
Launching its tenth season with a move to larger, swankier digs in the erstwhile Post Street Theatre (most recently occupied by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre) and a slight tweaking of its name from the more informal “SF Playhouse,” the San Francisco Playhouse kicked things off on Saturday with an opening-night gala with long thank-you speeches by company leaders and witty opening remarks by ex-mayor Willie Brown.
Certainly the transformation of the formerly 700-seat venue to an intimate 225 seats, with the stage moved forward 24 feet, is remarkable, particularly because it was done practically overnight. But the star attraction of the evening was opening night of songwriter Michael Friedman and book writer Alex Timbers’s 2010 Broadway rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, depicting the seventh president of these United States as an emo rock star. (San Jose Stage also did the show earlier this year.)
In a dynamic staging by Jon Tracy, the show boats a particularly impressive set by his wife Nina Ball, who also designed Shotgun’s Assassins. This one takes advantage of the roomy space with a towering dome of girders with a ring of scaffolding under it.
Led by mohawked guitarist/keyboardist Jonathan Fadner and decked out in rocker gear by costumers Abra Berman and Tatjana Genser, the cast doubles as the rock band playing all the songs, and they’re impressively tight. As far as I can tell “emo” is just pop-punk with angsty lyrics, but Michael Friedman’s songs are delightful, funny and propulsive. From the start of the bouncy opening ensemble number, “Populism, Yea Yea!,” it’s clear that this tale of the early 19th century packs some serious 21st century rocket fuel.
“I’m wearing some tight, tight jeans, and tonight we’re delving into some serious, serious shit,” Ashkon Davaran’s Andrew Jackson says, bounding out rock-star style at the beginning. Best known for his Giants fan version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” that went viral two years ago, Davaran starred in Shotgun’s Beardo last year as a sort of rock-star take on Rasputin, but that character was so out there that it was hard to get much sense of him as an actor. This Jackson is an outsize personality to be sure, but he has feelings, dangit, and Davaran aptly captures his charisma, petulance and fury.
To say the show plays fast and loose with history would be an understatement. In fact, it shows outright hostility to history, as evidenced by the acts of violence inflicted on Ann Hopkins’s bookish and hilariously effusive historian narrator who comes rolling in on an electric scooter.
For instance, the musical shows Jackson’s mother and father dying of “cholera” (actually arrows an Indian attack) when he was a boy, when in fact his father died in an accident before he was born and his mother died of cholera while volunteering as a nurse in the Revolutionary War. (Both of his brothers, unseen here, also died during the war.) But this bit of poetic license offers a convenient rationale (ah hell, let’s call it an excuse) for Jackson’s ongoing vendetta against Native Americans, removing tribes from their native lands en masse and moving them west of the Mississippi River. But it’s certainly true that Jackson lost his whole family at 14, giving him a whole lot to be emo about as he spits out the lyrics, “Life sucks! And my life sucks in particular.”
That sense of resentment—against American Indians, Washington elites, or whatever you’ve got—is what fuels Jackson throughout the musical, setting the stage for a lot of Old Hickory dickery as he becomes a spokesman for angry frontiersman, a war hero, and a unilateral invader and annexer of territory, capturing Florida from the Spanish in the First Seminole War. As he sings, blood-smeared, in “I’m So That Guy,” a reprise of the standout rocker “I’m Not That Guy,” “Sometimes you have to kill everyone everyone everyone.”
He fumes when the presidency is handed to John Quincy Adams in a backroom deal after Jackson won the popular vote and the electoral vote was split. When Jackson does win four years later, he’s shown asking hapless White House tourists for major policy decisions while ignoring the dictates of the Supreme Court.
Angel Burgess gives a sympathetic performance as Jackson’s wife Rachel, whose health suffered from (and eventually succumbed to) the stresses of public life, especially the uncovered scandal of her having not actually been divorced from her previous husband when she married the future president. Her romantic duet with Jackson, “Illness as a Metaphor,” is touching and hilarious at the same time. Torn between love and duty, Jackson tells her, “I love you, Rach. But I’ve also got to kill the entire native population!” Aww.
Pretty much everyone in the ensemble plays multiple parts as the play speeds through decades of history. Lucas Hatton, Olive Mitra and William Elsman (who turns out to be an ace drummer in addition to his acting talents) give winning portrayals of posh establishment types (or “doily-wearing motherfuckers,” as Jackson calls them) James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, respectively. Doubling as a snobby Henry Clay, Safiya Fredericks is a troubled and conflicted Black Fox, a Jackson ally who screws over other tribes to protect his own. Very funny in various minor roles, Michael Barrett Austin is endearingly befuddled as Jackson’s right hand man and biggest fan, Martin Van Buren.
El Beh has a forceful solo turn playing cello and singing on “Ten Little Indians,” chronicling the downfall of one tribe after another in negotiations with Jackson, and her ability to jump around while bowing her cello in the jubilant finale is pretty damn impressive. Alternating with Daniel Vigil, James Smith-Wallis is endearingly cheerful as the Creek Indian child Jackson adopted, Lyncoya.
It’s a funny play, and the songs are great, but it does have some trouble wrapping things up. The performances don’t lose any steam, but the musical itself seems to spin its wheels a bit toward the end as if trying to figure out where to stop. (Both of these musicals are under two hours with no intermission, so it’s not like it’s too long.) At the end it attempts to tackle Jackson’s place in history as populist president, scourge of the American Indians, founder of the Democratic Party and the guy who “put the ‘man’ in manifest destiny.” It’s a complicated topic for such a brisk and breezy take, and as a result the show just sort of throws up its hands and waves them like it just doesn’t care. And fair enough. It’s a populist musical about a man of the people, and the people have limited patience for the fine points of historical legacy.
Assassins: Show #90 of 2012, attended October 11.