Review: Assassins (Kokandy Productions)

| June 24, 2014
Patrick Byrnes, Jeff Meyer and Michael Potsic star in Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese)        
      
Assassins

Written by Stephen Sondheim (music, lyrics) 
   and John Weidman (book)
Directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
thru July 20 |  tickets: $38   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
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Fearless cast, sharp direction make for extraordinary revival

     

Eric Lindahl in Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese)

    
Kokandy Productions presents
    
Assassins

Review by Oliver Sava 

Last year, there were 365 mass shootings in the United States, averaging one for every day of the year. It was also a year that saw Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., one of the largest gunmakers in the U.S., report record sales. It’s a chilling time in our nation’s history when 74 school shootings occur in 18 months while gun sales rise, which makes it (unfortunately) the perfect time for a revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 musical about people that tried to change the course of America with the power of a gun. Some of them succeeded and some of them failed, but none of them will ever be forgotten, especially when their stories are told with the attention and care shown in Kokandy’s extraordinary revival.

Greg Foster in Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese)With a fearless cast, sharp staging by Rachel Edwards Harvith, and meticulous musical direction by Kory Danielson—who recently directed the music for Theo Ubique’s Jeff Award-winning revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion—Kokandy delivers a chilling production that lingers in the memory long after the actors take their bows. And those actors! They give performances that would be remarkable on any Equity stage, but in the more intimate setting of Theater Wit’s Theater 3, these actors are flat-out breathtaking.

Rather than utilizing an ensemble of actors to play the supporting characters, Kokandy’s production has the assassins stepping into those roles, giving the cast the opportunity to stretch their acting muscles even harder. This concept is incredibly affecting during “Something Just Broke,” one of the show’s final numbers that is given added poignancy when we see the cast take on different personas to detail that moment when a country learns its leader has been shot. By stepping into these roles, the assassins fully comprehend the impact of their actions for the very first time.

Transitions are of utmost importance in a show where actors regularly switch between notorious criminals and the auxiliary characters affected by their actions, and there’s not a single bump in the rhythm as Harvith gracefully guides her actors through the piece. This production is brimming with life, and the performers succeed in the delicate balancing act of playing distinct background characters without pulling focus from the main action.

Every performance is overflowing with passion, with Eric Lindahl anchoring the production as a rousing John Wilkes Booth, the man who made all this possible. He embodies all the complexities of this doomed figure, making the audience sympathize with a man who has gone down as one of history’s greatest villains. As the boyish, idealistic Balladeer and the devious, enigmatic Proprietor, Cole Doman and Jeff Meyer bring personality to abstract characters that serve as a type of chorus.  The real magic happens, however, when the assassins are front and center.

With a pitch-perfect Polish dialect and an immensely powerful singing voice, Patrick Byrnes is an arresting Leon Czolgosz, giving the haunting “Gun Song”—the piece of music most relevant to our current national situation—a strong foundation for the rest of the cast to build on. As Samuel Byck, Jason Richards delivers some of the finest monologue work on a Chicago stage this year, and his fierce dedication to the material paints a detailed portrait of a man suffering from acute mental illness.

Nathan Gardner as Lee Harvey Oswald in Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese)Neala Baron, Nathan Gardner, and Jason Richards in Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese) Nathan Gardner in  Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese)Neala Baron and Allison Hendrix in Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese)

Across the board, this production does outstanding work showing the mental instability that pushes these characters to take extreme action: Greg Foster’s Charles J. Guiteau is a raging megalomaniac that is aggressively trying to make himself known, Alex Heika’s Giuseppe Zangara is a man whose intense physical pain affects his mental health and pushes him to nonsensical action, and Nathan Gardner’s Lee Harvey Oswald has bottled up his feelings of insecurity and disenchantment to the point that they will kill him if he doesn’t find a way to direct them outward.

The gentle, but imposing Michael Potsic nails the tenderness of the man’s affection for Jodie Foster, and his duet with Allison Hendrix’s equally delusional Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulls at the heartstrings as it explores two obsessions that drive unrequited lovers to attempt presidential assassination. Hendrix has electric chemistry with Neala Barron’s delightfully flustered Sara Jane Moore, and both women have powerhouse singing voices that more than hold their own in the midst of nine strong males.

From a technical perspective, the production is near flawless. Zachary Gipson’s exceptionally multi-faceted stage design allows Harvith to create beautiful stage pictures, which are then given extra texture and atmosphere by Brandon Wardell’s lighting, which embraces bold colors to evoke specific feelings like rage, sickness, and comfort. Every element of Kokandy’s Assassins comes together to create an unforgettable musical experience, and this complex, sophisticated revival is the kind of production that comes along all too rarely during Chicago’s typically tepid summer theater season. Do not miss it.

  
Rating: ★★★★
  
   

Assassins continues through July 20th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Wednesdays-Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $38, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at KokandyProductions.com(Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, includes an intermission)

Neala Barron, Patrick Byrnes, Cole Doman, Greg Foster, Nathan Gardner, Alex Heika, Allison Hendrix, Eric Lindahl, Jeff Meyer, Michael Potsic and Jason Richards star in Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese)

Photos by Joshua Albanese 


     

artists

cast

Neala Barron (Sara Jane Moore), Patrick Byrnes (Leon Czolgosz), Cole Doman (Balladeer), Greg Foster (Charles Guiteau), Nathan Gardner (Lee Harvey Oswald), Alex Heika (Giuseppe Zangara), Allison Hendrix (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Eric Lindahl (John Wilkes Booth), Jeff Meyer (Proprietor), Michael Potsic (John Hinckley, Jr.), Jason Richards (Samuel Byck).

orchestra

Kory Danielson (director, keyboards), Kyle McCullough (guitar), David Orlicz (reed 1), Mike Matlock (reed 2), Jered Montgomery (trumpet), Zachary Moore (bass), Scott Simon (percussion)

behind the scenes

Rachel Edwards Harvith (director), Kory Danielson (music director), Brandon Wardell (lighting design), Johnny Buranosky (properties design), Mike Ford (choreographer), Zachary Gipson (scenic design), Kate Setzer Kamphausen (costume design), Mikey Moran (sound design), JC Widman (stage manager), Scot T. Kokandy (executive producer), Joshua Albanese (photos)

Neala Baron and Greg Foster in Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese)Neala Barron, Patrick Byrnes, Cole Doman, Greg Foster, Nathan Gardner, Alex Heika, Allison Hendrix, Eric Lindahl, Jeff Meyer, Michael Potsic and Jason Richards star in Kokandy Productions' "Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. (photo credit: Joshua Albanese)

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Category: Kokandy Productions, Musical, Oliver Sava, Stephen Sondheim, Theater Wit

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