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'Assassins' hits the mark at Laurel Mill Playhouse

'Assassins' hits the mark at Laurel Mill Playhouse
Joe Mariano, left, as Giuseppe Zangara, who assassinated the mayor of Chicago in 1933; and Stephen Deininger as John Wilks Booth in Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "Assassins." (Photo by John Cholod)

Laurel Mill Playhouse has crossed into the danger zone with guns blazing and characters raging in Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by John Weidman, produced by Maureen Rogers, of Laurel.

The controversial show opened off-Broadway in 1990 and was the first musical performed at the Laurel Mill Playhouse on Main Street. Then Playhouse regular the late Bill Tchakirides, who died in 2013, directed a production in 2003 before "Assassins" made its way to Broadway (Rogers is the only returning cast member).

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In 2004, "Assassins" began a Broadway run of more than 100 performances, earning multiple Tony awards and a Drama Desk award for outstanding revival of a musical.

From left, Cassandra Ferrell, Brianna Scheeler, Penni Barnett and AnnaBelle Lowe in a scene from "Assassins" at Laurel Mill Playhouse.
From left, Cassandra Ferrell, Brianna Scheeler, Penni Barnett and AnnaBelle Lowe in a scene from "Assassins" at Laurel Mill Playhouse. (Photo by John Cholod)

Directed here by Michael V. Hartsfield, of Laurel, with lovely musical direction by Billy Georg and Laurel resident Mimi Kuhn McGinniss, the plot loosely travels real assassination attempts on U.S. presidents.

The one-act show opens to a carnival-style shooting gallery where photos of eight presidents hang as targets. Jim Knost, who portrays the omnipotent Proprietor, auctions guns to the Assassins as they enter in surreal time to perform a lively rendition of "Everybody's Got the Right."

Designed by Hartsfield and Tom Howley, the set is simple but savvy; its black wall flats with painted Americana red and white stripes hint of dripping blood.

The well-rehearsed orchestra — with McGinniss on piano, Brian Simon on clarinet and alto sax, Kathy Hersey on trumpet and Zach Konich on drums/percussion — performs Sondheim's eclectic music scores live in a panoramic revue of popular American music styles, sight unseen.

Period costumes assembled by Carol Meade Cartmell (along with Rogers, Hartsfield and cast) and the directors' lighting and sound complete the design elements.

Stephen Deininger, left, as John Wilkes Booth and Daniel Santiago as Lee Harvey Oswald in Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "Assassins."
Stephen Deininger, left, as John Wilkes Booth and Daniel Santiago as Lee Harvey Oswald in Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "Assassins." (Photo by John Cholod)

Sondheim's primary characters are inspired by historical figures: John Wilkes Booth (played by Stephen Deininger); David Herold and Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Santiago); Charles Guiteau (Laurel resident John Scheeler); presidents William McKinley, James Garfield and Gerald Ford (Laurel resident Ron Able); James Blaine (Patrick Pase); Leon Czolgosz (Stephen Yednock); Emma Goldman (Rogers); Giuseppe Zangara (Joe Mariano); Samuel Byck (Tom Howley); John Hinckley (Gary Eurice); Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Morrigan Condo); and Sara Jane Moore (Meg Nemeth).

Knost delivers a fine performance as the Proprietor. Matt Wetzel (whose fluid voice never falters) as the Balladeer and Stuart Deininger (who enacts an awesome temper tantrum) as Billy are also fictional characters; the ensemble includes Jordan Essex, Penni Barnett, AnnaBelle Lowe, Rogers, Able, Santigo, Pase and Laurel residents Cassandra Ferrell and Brianna Scheeler.

In Scene 1, a parade and musical numbers "Hail to the Chief" and "Sic Semper Tyrannis the tone for the insanity that follows.

As Lincoln's 19th-century assassin, John Wilkes Booth, Deininger skillfully maneuvers the frenetic energy of his mad character; his performance of "The Ballad of Booth" with Wetzel is captivating.

Yednock is equally adept at portraying Leon Czolosz, President William McKinley's assassin at the turn of the 20th century. His rock solid stage presence and puppy-dog worship of Rogers as the American anarchist Emma Goldman (the two conjure sweet energy together) create a surprisingly likable character.

Mariano as the gut-clutching Italian immigrant Guiseppi Zangara, who fails to assassinate Franklin Roosevelt, is fascinating to watch.

As Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Eurice exudes broody underplay. In Scene 10, he plays the guitar and sings "Unworthy of Your Love" while obsessing over Jody Foster in a standout moment.

Meg Nemeth, left¿, as Sara Jane Moore; and¿ Morrigan Condo as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme in "Assassins" at Laurel Mill Playhouse.
Meg Nemeth, left¿, as Sara Jane Moore; and¿ Morrigan Condo as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme in "Assassins" at Laurel Mill Playhouse. (Photo by John Cholod)

John Scheeler as Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, oozes delusional charisma. His performance of "The Ballad of Guiteau" in Scene 12 offers a delightful foray into slapstick. Howley's passionate portrayal of Byck, the incongruent Santa bent on assassinating Nixon, shows an impressive depth of urban character.

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Condo (as the Charles Manson groupie "Squeaky" Fromme) and Nemeth (portraying her equally crazy sidekick, Sara Jane Moore) rock every scene they appear in with impeccable comic timing.

As the "game" pauses (it never really wraps up), ensemble members Lowe and Essex perform pleasing solos of "Something Just Broke" (Barnet will understudy on May 13).

Rife with creative license and stylized, symbolic violence, there are no gory effects in the Playhouse's rendition of "Assassins"; audience members of all ages are safe from blood spatters. But the statements "Assassins" makes about what's at stake in politics in Hartsfield's excellent ensemble production will likely be appreciated most by mature audiences.

"Assassins" continues weekends through May 22, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $22. Students 18 and under, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $17. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2, or buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org

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