Scotch'n'Soda presents killer production
Do you sometimes feel low? Unsatisfied? Lost? Like you’re just another nobody, stranded, alone in the universe? Then just pick up a gun and shoot the President! That’s the advice given by both failed and successful presidential killers that make up the cast of characters in Scotch’n’Soda’s 75th anniversary production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, which was presented throughout last week’s Spring Carnival in Rangos Hall.
The musical follows a rogue’s gallery of American assassins, including John Wilkes Booth (who killed Abraham Lincoln), Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley’s killer), and Charles Guiteau (who killed James Garfield), as they debate, hatch, and execute their plans to kill the President of the United States — sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much.
Assassins is comprised of numerous and somewhat independent stories, each involving one of the assassins trying to solve his or her problems by killing the most important man in America. These characters hang around a carnival-style shooting game run by the encouraging Proprietor, played by sophomore vocal performance major Kevin O’Hora. Each story is accompanied by a song sung directly to the audience by the Balladeer, played by junior mathematics major William Veer. The songs provided the reasons for each assassin’s crime and challenged them at the same time.
The stories range in energy and tone from incredibly funny and active to more somber and downbeat. Watching junior communication design major Larissa Jantonio’s Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and sophomore vocal performance major Joanna Latini’s Sara Jane Moore bumble through their attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford kept the audience in stitches.
Jantonio perfectly captured the kind of manic intensity one would expect from a member of the infamous murderers of the Manson family. Her frequent explosions of love and admiration for her crazed leader Charles Manson were so over the top, yet sincere, you didn’t know whether to laugh or shift uncomfortably in your seat.
Latini perfectly complemented Jantonio’s focused energy with her portrayal of an average housewife who just can’t get the whole assassination thing down; one scene involving her inability to shoot her gun was particularly memorable. Her performance was fully committed and hilarious, allowing every one of their scenes to play extraordinarily well.
On the flip side, junior vocal performance major James Alexander’s Leon Czolgosz is haunted by the gruesome sights he witnesses at his job in a turn-of-the-century factory. Czolgosz debates whether or not he is capable of killing President McKinley so that he can put an end to the injustice perpetrated against the common worker. Many of Czolgosz’s scenes involved a darkened stage with him in the spotlight, which highlighted the alienation he feels as just another cog in the machine.
While Assassins is a good musical, its lack of focus makes its message feel a little bit muddled. The script attempts to make grand statements about the death of the American dream and identifies the idea as the driving force behind each character’s actions, but it instead comes across as a discontinuous jumble of ideas.
Assassins is at its most engaging, however, when it delves into the more personal reasons for the assassinations. Sophomore vocal performance major Taylor Rawley’s John Hinckley is deeply in love with Jodie Foster and feels that by making a grand statement — attempting to kill President Ronald Reagan — he will win her love. While this dream is obviously crazy, Rawley’s performance almost made you want it to come true, and Hinckley’s failure was near heartbreaking.
This desire to matter to someone — anyone — was shared by many of the other assassins, notably Fromme. Fromme sings a song with Hinckley in which they express feeling unworthy of another’s love (in her case, the love of Charles Manson). When you get to the heart of each character’s story, they’re all pretty much about a desire to be important, and the moments that demonstrate that wish are where Assassins really hits home.
Even though it has been in production and planning for months, given the recent events in Boston, Assassins felt incredibly relevant. The musical makes note that, at the end of the day, the killing of each of these Presidents did nothing to fix the ills the assassins saw in America. While it is a bit cliché to say that violence is never the answer, the sentiment is nonetheless true.
Whether it be the murder of innocent civilians or a dramatic assassination of a global leader, killing any member of a society can’t fix that society’s faults. The images on every television screen of the chaos and violence in Boston must have been in the back of many audience members’ minds while watching Assassins; they definitely were in mine. This timeliness made the musical much more powerful than it would have if it had been performed just a week earlier.