As many gear up for Halloween, Music Box Musicals' inaugural production is striking a different nerve-a political nerve. With a wonderful production of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim's thought-provoking musical ASSASSINS, Music Box Musicals invites audiences to listen. Not only to the tales they present on stage, but in our lives outside of the theatre as well.
ASSASSINS originally opened Off-Broadway in 1990. Roundabout Theatre Company scheduled the Broadway premiere of the show in 2001, but the show's dark content in combination with the events of September 11th necessitated a need to postpone the show. It eventually opened at Studio 54 in 2004. Now, with fantastic direction and an amazingly talented, locally famous cast, ASSASSINS returns to Houston, TX in the height of this politically charged season. The musical presents historical information in a non-linear way, unnerving the audience by humanizing would-be and successful presidential assassins. Their heinous deeds are not overlooked, nor is the audience expected to sympathize with the assassins. Instead, the show allows the audience to collectively look into their lives, understand their psyche, and feel empathy for Americans who are chasing their unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Direction by Michael J. Ross and Kristina Sullivan is magnificently affecting. Under their skilled reins, the cast delivers a show that works from beginning to end. Highlighting the thematic element of listening, staging for "Another National Anthem" reels an already engaged audience deeper into the musical by changing their role from audience to active participant in the production. Likewise, the emotional epicenter of the show, "Something Just Broke," easily induces tears and a flood of memories of a grieving, broken nation in the wake of major tragedies. However, this number is only powerful because of how well the show is presented and played leading up to that moment. Music Box Musicals' production of ASSASSINS is a masterful, moving elegiac examination of what an unchecked sense of entitlement does to our understanding of our basic human rights and the idealized American dream.
Likewise, Musical Direction by Michael J. Ross is impeccable. The score utilizes Americana and period music to emphasize the differing time periods of each assassin, which Michael J. Ross purposefully allows the audience to realize and experience. Then, in numbers such as "Gun Song," he has deftly rehearsed the cast to deliver haunting, perfectly blended harmonies that impress while entertaining.
As Carnival Music permeates the air, Adam Delka as the Proprietor slinks into the performance space. If the title of the show and opening riffs of music haven't already unsettled them, Adam Delka's delivery of "Everybody's Got the Right" is sure to set the audience to unease. Cleverly, Stephen Sondheim's score and lyrics have discomforted the audience from the opening of the show, effectively opening their ears and making them listen. To ensure this delivery, Adam Delka expertly plays into the motif throughout the entirety of the production and giving his portrayal a dark alley, sideshow vibe. As he continues to be an omniscient and omnipresent figure throughout the production, he is reminiscent of characters like The Phantom of the Opera; however, this score and book never add a lush, romantic frill to his darkness. Therefore, Adam Delka's Proprietor pristinely keeps the audience engaged in the show through his keen ability to distress them.
Brad Scarborough's John Wilkes Booth perfectly characterizes himself as "vainglorious." In his vanity and pride lurks a truly sinister undercurrent, which fuels Brad Scarborough's adroit portrayal. Listening to his rich and skillful vocals, Brad Scarborough effortlessly slithers into audience's heart and charms them as the venomous John Wilkes Booth. Simply put, the audience easily gets lost in his well-tuned and splendid performance. Then, in the tense and tumultuous scene before "Something Just Broke," his villainy reaches extreme heights and showcases how fragile each human is. It also exposes just how easy it is for feeble and emotionally distraught people to be persuaded into actions that they normally would never consider, which is a chilling and frightening discovery that is made on stage and in the audiences' minds at the same time.