The debut of UT's Musical Theatre Pilot Project is a visual treat, well performed, and with plenty of fun moments
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., April 18, 2008
B. Iden Payne Theatre, through April 20
Running time: 1 hr, 50 min
You cannot murder a president, John Wilkes Booth smartly tells a depressed Lee Harvey Oswald. Presidents, as it were, can only be assassinated. Murder is savage, base, sadistic, unthinkable to a civilized person. But in an assassination, there's power, there's transformation, and there's fulfillment and purpose. At least that's what Booth and Stephen Sondheim would have you believe in Assassins, the first production by the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance's Musical Theatre Pilot Project.
Of the four successful assassins of American presidents, how many can you name? Of their five would-be brethren? Our current culture has forever dramatized John Wilkes Booth and his derringer, Lee Harvey Oswald and his rifle (conspiracies aside), but the rest has been gobbled up in our history books by words like "assassinated" or "attempt." Composer-lyricist Sondheim and book writer John Weidman make the antagonists of American history into the musical's protagonists. These characters struggle with money, politics, and lost loves; they bicker with one another; and they all have some beef with this thing called the American dream.
But Assassins does not unabashedly throw itself behind these triggermen. They are countered by the balladeers, a denim-clad trio that sweetly sings the praises of all the potential and possibility that exists in America. For all their major key resolutions and positive messages, though, there is something of a false timbre in their affirmations in light of the humanized assassins' struggles. But do we truly want to side with a pack of deranged and depressed murderers? When the assassins angrily chase the balladeers off the stage during the singing of "Another National Anthem," it's not entirely certain which group we should be sympathizing with. Assassins is more a questioning of than an indictment of our culture, and during this contemplation, the audience is treated to its fair share of jokes, songs, and pageantry.
The Department of Theatre & Dance certainly cares about its Musical Theatre Pilot Project, because it has invested heavily in its production of Assassins. This is a beautiful, beautiful show. Sarah Rae Davidson's set has the feel of an abandoned carnival; while the flashing lights and red, white, and blue bull's-eyes create a festive, patriotic atmosphere, there's something industrial about the rusted scaffolding and ladders the actors climb about. Just as Assassins' plot plays back and forth between differing concepts of the American dream, so too does the stage transform from a bright, flag-waving affair to the tragically lone figure of Santa-suit-wearing Sam Byck sitting on a bench, mouthing off. Somber or ominous moments find the stage backlit by lighting designer Will C. Sutliff in a brilliantly deep blood red.
From the constant onlookers to the video-screen graphics to the ever-present austerity of Christopher Skillern's John Wilkes Booth, director Rod Caspers' production constantly finds the stage flush with interesting images without losing focus. An electric chair is ushered on; a gaggle of chatty bystanders comes and goes; Zachary Ullah's Charles Guiteau dances toward his noose, anon. And Jennifer Madison's costume design adds to Assassins' dazzling appearance with some gorgeous pieces: As Booth, Skillern looks stunning in a leather overcoat topping a rose-patterned vest, and the bystanders, all dressed in white, still manage to invoke a century's worth of fashion.
Assassins asks more about our culture and our humanity than it does of our politics, but it never gets bogged down in its message. UT's production is a visual treat with Sondheim's well-composed music well performed by the cast and orchestra and plenty of fun moments. If all of the Musical Theatre Pilot Project's shows are this successful, we hope the program will keep on flying well into the future.