Starting a brand new theatre company is scary enough. But when you choose a Sondheim musical to start the engines, it’s downright frightening. On the other hand, when you know St. Louis audiences are Sondheim-crazy, the choice has to be a good one and you’re next step is to land a competent cast and outstanding director. Mission accomplished. The November Theater Company opens their quest with his dark comedy/musical, “Assassins.” An enthusiastic opening night audience approved and it looks like “11theater” is on its way. Last month at the Ivory Theatre we saw a satiric look at famous First Ladies as R-S Theatrics brought us “First Lady Suite” and now we get a more terrifying yet equally irreverent, comic look at the serious business of presidential assassins.
Landing new Artistic Director of St. Louis Shakespeare, Suki Peters, as director started their project off on the right foot. Her knowledge of the local theatre community and keen eye for casting has helped November to success on their first try. Strong singing voices and quality acting skills combine throughout the entire cast and Suki has brought her own special brand to this dark but comedic look at presidential assassins or “wannabes” throughout history. Focusing on the two most famous, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, we travel through a literal shooting gallery of fiendish and disturbed individuals as time and space are shattered so these shooters can interact with each other.
Jon Hey, as the Proprietor who sets the wheels moving, brings a strong stage presence to his role as he directs traffic in an introduction to the band of individuals we’re going to see over the next hour and a half. Charlie Barron takes over as the Balladeer and moves in and out of the story introducing everyone as their particular story unfolds. He displays a great singing voice and his personable approach makes us feel comfortable meeting these pariahs of history. He even makes a surprising “guest” appearance at the end of the musical.
Mike Amoroso is stunning as John Wilkes Booth. His charm wins us over and his final scene with Lee Harvey Oswald is one of the most chilling encounters imaginable. Comparing himself, Lee Harvey and others to the despair of Willy Loman in “Death Of A Salesman” is brilliant. Whether striking out at yourself or other individuals who you think may be responsible for your failure, this presence of a “death wish” exists in so many situations. Mitch Eagles is a strong Guiseppe Zangara- the man who tried to assassinate FDR and Nick Kelly also shines as Leon Czolgosz who succeeded in his attempt at McKinley. A comic turn by Patrick Kelly as Charles Guiteau, assassin of Garfield, brings the house down as he cakewalks his way to the gallows.
Nate Cummings is superb as John Hinckley, attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan and delusionaly love struck with Jodie Foster. He teams up with a delightful Jennifer Theby Quinn as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme- attempting to assassinate Gerald Ford- in a freakishly romantic duet of “Unworthy Of Your Love.” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (the wild-eyed Jessica Townes) obsess with great comic results about killing Gerald Ford. Patrick Blindauer adds just the right amount of crazy to Sam Byck, attempted assassin of Richard Nixon. Dressed as Santa Claus, he brings a bizarre comic turn to his role. Nancy Nigh brings a short, but effective touch to the radical protester, Emma Goldman. She also doubles as a solid member of the ensemble.
Also doing great work in multiple roles are Will Bonfiglio, Brittany Kohl Hester, Dorothy LaBounty, Kelvin Urday and Mike Wells. The Jason Townes set design is incredibly effective providing upper and lower acting areas and muted national colors to emphasize the darker side of America’s history. Meredith LaBounty’s costumes are perfect and Bob Singleton’s sparkling projections hit just the right note. Charlie Mueller provides music direction although the canned music occasionally overtakes the singers and drowns them out. Russell Warning is responsible for the effective lighting design and Emily Hatcher’s sound design is also powerful including the multiple use of gunfire.
Producer Dustin Allison and his crew have made a most auspicious debut with Sondheim’s “Assassins.” This show is not an easy one to get across considering the dark nature of the plot, the often difficult Sondheim music and the need for so many powerful singers and actors. But this one works, folks and I urge you to support the efforts of this fledgling group. Great things are indeed ahead if they can maintain the quality of their inaugural production. Contact November Theater Company at 11theater.com for tickets or more information.