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Queens Chronicle

qboro The dark humor found in killing a president

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Posted: Thursday, May 9, 2019 10:30 am

An intense, generally satisfying rendering of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical “Assassins” is the current attraction at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, where it runs through May 12.

A powerful cast and imaginative staging make for an intriguing take on this story of a group of disaffected men and women who, in pursuit of their personal dreams and happiness, either assassinated a president of the United States or, at the very least, made an attempt to do so.

One major misfire: the latest example in an ever-escalating epidemic of gender-blind casting. On occasion, the practice might make for an interesting dynamic. But enough is enough!

McLean Peterson is a talented and attractive actress, with a fine set of pipes and strong dramatic skills. But in no way is she right for the role of Lee Harvey Oswald, a well-recognized historical figure, the man remembered for ending the life of President John F. Kennedy on that November day in Dallas.

Traditionally, the performer playing Oswald doubles as the show’s narrator, identified as The Balladeer, who provides, in song, background on the other characters. In this capacity, Peterson is fine. But once she is transformed into Oswald, all credibility is out the window.

Outstanding among the other players is Evan Teich, intense and in fine voice as John Wilkes Booth, revered by his fellow assassins for his role in American history.

Jaime Hall is memorable as the lesser-known Samuel Byck, an outspoken critic of President Nixon who, long before 9/11, planned to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House. He delivers a lengthy tirade that is, at once, off-the-wall, touching, and even surprisingly comical.

A beautifully played scene between Hannah Howzdy as a loopy Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Leeanna Rubin as unhinged Sara Jane Moore is another highlight, as the two women reminisce about their mutual acquaintance with Charles Manson, thought by Fromme to be the Messiah. Rubin puts her expressive face to good use on multiple occasions throughout the show.

Jonmichael Tarleton is a manic Charles J. Guiteau, whose request to become ambassador to France was denied, inspiring him to kill President James Garfield. He has a grand time in his one big number, sung on his way to the gallows.

“I am going to the Lordy,” he proclaims, as the work of choreographer Christophe Noffke demonstrates that ingenuity often carries the day. It is brilliantly staged and executed.

Aaron Gooden cuts an imposing figure in a sympathetic portrayal of Leon Czolgosz, a down-on-his-luck factory worker.

Robert Farruggia puts his fine tenor voice to good use as Giuseppe Zangara, who suffered from lifelong stomach pain and who was sent to the electric chair following his attempt on the life of FDR. Tim Realbuto has his moment to shine as John Hinckley Jr., singing of his love for actress Jodie Foster. Savannah Lloyd has a memorable cameo as anarchist Emma Goldman. Grant Snuffer is appropriately sinister as The Proprietor, who beckons potential customers to “kill a president.”

Working on a limited budget and in a small-scale playing area, director Lauren Shields makes the most out of the talent on hand, striking the right tone for this darkly humorous tale. Music director Morgan Morse handles the challenging Sondheim score with aplomb.

The design team, Steven Bolt (set), Ashley James (costumes) and Annie Garrett-Larsen (lights), honed their contributions into a unified whole.

“Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” the characters sing at various stages. You might not leave this thought-provoking show feeling exactly that way, but you should leave feeling fulfilled.

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