By Kimberly Rau
Assassins, the first-ever Broadway musical to be performed at the Gamm Theatre, opened this week, and if this is how Gamm is going to handle big musicals, may this be the first of many.
One of Stephen Sondheim’s later musicals, Assassins offers a stirring look inside the (semi-fictionalized) psyches of presidential killers (or, in some cases, attempted killers). What made them take aim at the most powerful men in the free world? Sometimes they wanted to change the country, other times they believed they were fighting tyranny, making a name for themselves, or merely finding a way to be acknowledged or remembered. But all of them, Sondheim tells us, at least in his musical, are looking for some prize for their misdeeds…mostly in vain.
Assassins is set up like a rundown carnival shooting game, and Eden Casteel makes her Gamm debut as the proprietor, calling the shots and running the show. If you caught her in OSTC’s Victor/Victoria, you already know how adept Casteel is at changing personas on a dime, and that skill, along with her incredible voice, makes her a captivating ringmaster (and president). She carefully and seductively acts as a mirror for the criminals’ mental fractures, pushing them past their breaking points and then standing before them, daring them to do their worst. Sometimes they succeed.
Alexander Platt is John Wilkes Booth, who insists he didn’t kill Lincoln because he wasn’t getting good theater reviews, but his motivations are mocked, so he spends the rest of the play encouraging others to try to kill their presidents. Platt’s Booth is equal parts demented and passionate, which makes him a formidable energy for the show’s two hours. Amanda Ruggerio as Squeaky Fromme, Charles Manson’s lover and one of the women who tried to kill Gerald Ford, is so in-character you can see the crazy emanating from her fingertips. She does such a good job that it’s no stretch to believe she could both set up an assassination plan and drag the somewhat unwitting failed housewife Sara Jane Moore (brilliantly portrayed by Casey Seymour Kim) along with her. And Gamm favorite Tom Gleadow is perfectly unglued as Richard Nixon’s would-be assassin, screaming into a tape recorder to chastise celebrities and riding his three-wheel bike around while he explains his plan to hijack a plane and hit the White House (keep in mind that in the era, it was both easier and far more implausible to potentially accomplish this). Kudos to the entire cast for handling tough subject matter and unlikeable characters with such dexterity. As a rule, Sondheim’s numbers are quite complex, but under the musical direction of Lila Kane, these talented singers and musicians make it look easy. From start to finish, this show packs an incredible punch.
The set is stark and unsettling in its minimalism, but the really engaging aspect is the almost-in-the-round seating that puts the audience smack in the middle of the action. If you are lucky enough to be in the section that rests practically on the stage, you will have a theatrical experience like no other. It’s hard not to be swept away when the action is literally at your fingertips.
Directed by Tony Estrella, Gamm’s Assassins paints a thought-provoking picture of the disorienting razzle-dazzle ideal that is the American Dream. It’s no secret that Estrella is a fantastic director, but this may be one of his best productions yet. Read a synopsis before you go (there’s a lot of great background information in the program) and prepare to be surprised nonetheless.
Assassins runs through March 29 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401-723-4266.