Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Motives examined in 'Assassinations' at Hillbarn


Sara Jane Moore (Hayley Lovgren, left) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Brigitte Losey) share a joint. (Photo by Tracy Martin)

Although “Assassins,” with its music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, seems like an unlikely topic for a musical, this 1991 creation examines motives leading to assassinations and attempted assassinations of presidents and relates them to current events.

Presented by Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory, it features 17 actors in lead and supporting roles.

The emcee, called the Balladeer or Proprietor (Keith Pinto), introduces the assassins. The first is 27-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth (Andre Amarotico), who killed Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Others include Charles Guiteau (Ted Zoldan), 40. who killed James Garfield in 1881; Leon Czolgosz (Benjamin Ball), 28, who killed William McKinley in 1901;  and Giuseppe Zangara (Jesse Cortez), 33, who tried to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933.

Lee Harvey Oswald (Julio Chavez), 24, killed John F. Kennedy in 1963. Samuel Byck (Andrew Cope), 44, planned to kill Richard Nixon by crashing a hijacked plane into the White House in 1974 but was killed during the hijack attempt.

Two women, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Brigitte Losey), 27, and Sara Jane Moore (Hayley Lovgren), 45, separately tried to kill Gerald Ford in 1975. Also unsuccessful was John Hinckley (Nick Kenrick), 26, who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981.

All nine of these people had traits in common, according to Joshua Marx in his director’s notes. They felt different, inferior and destined. They wanted recognition, and they felt that they were justified “to use violence to realize your American right to be happy,” Marx wrote.

In short, they were mentally unbalanced.

Sondheim and Weidman have several characters interacting over the years. Booth, for example, urges some to act on their impulses.

In “Unworthy of Your Love,” Fromme sings of her love for mass murderer Charles Manson, and Hinckley says he wants to impress actor Jody Foster with his love.

“Gun Song” talks about how easy it is to shoot a gun. Guns are a crucial prop in the show, but the program says that all of them “are replicas that were procured from, checked and rendered inoperable by a weapons specialist.” They’re locked up between performances.

Perhaps the most telling and timely song is “Something Just Broke,” sung by the ensemble. This follows the scene when Oswald shot Kennedy and says that things won’t be the same.

In his director’s notes, Marx alludes to events that have taken place since “Assassins” was written. They include Jan. 6 and mass shootings.

All of the songs showcase Sondheim’s musical and lyrical genius, and all of them are performed well.

The actors are uniformly excellent singers and performers. Some, including Pinto, also dance well (choreography by assistant director Leslie Waggoner).

The multi-level set, with its collection of old TVs, radios and other items, is by scenic and props designer Christopher Fitzer.

Sound is by Jules Indelicato, lighting by John Bernard and costumes, wigs and makeup by Y. Sharon Peng. Jad Bernardo is the music director.

“Assassins” is thought-provoking, absorbing and entertaining for mature audiences.

Running about 105 minutes with no intermission, “Assassins” will continue through Feb. 12 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.


Thursday, January 26, 2023

Laughter abounds in 'The Play That Goes Wrong'

Guests at Haversham Manor drink a toast to their departed host. (Photo by Scott Lasky)


It takes great skill and talent to stage a play that’s supposed to be as glitch-ridden as “The Play That Goes Wrong” by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.

Luckily, Palo Alto Players’ cast and crew have an abundance of both in this 2012 play within a play. Six of the eight actors are double-cast, playing roles in the inner  play, “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” which is supposedly presented by an English company, the Cornley Drama Society.”

Its convoluted plot involves the murder of Charles Haversham (Drew Benjamin Jones on opening night, alternating with Christopher Mahle), the night of the party celebrating his engagement to Sandra (Michelle Skinner).

The suspects are everyone there that evening, including his brother, Cecil (Braden Taylor), and the butler, Perkins (Brandon Silberstein). Inspector Carter (Brad Satterwhite) is looking into the case as complications arise.

Along the way, everything that could possibly go wrong does. The Cornley actor playing Charles can’t get comfortable on the chaise. Decorative items fall off the wall. A stretcher tears apart. Even the upstairs library collapses.

Sandra disappears, forcing Annie (Jen Maggio, alternating with Damaris Divito), a reluctant, then preening stage hand to fill in for her. Cornley actors flub their lines.

The action evolves into hilarious farce, leaving the plot somewhat irrelevant and requiring the actors to be ever more acrobatic and agile. Small wonder some strenuous roles are double-cast.

Director Katie O’Bryon Champlin guides the cast through all this mayhem with spot-on timing. Great credit goes to scenic designers Patrick Klein and Kevin Davies for building a set fraught with danger while keeping the actors safe.

The fight and fall consultant is Dexter Fidler. Costumes are by Jenny Garcia, lighting by Carsten Koester and sound by Jeff Grafton. Others were crucial in  creating this show.

Plot is secondary to the visual and aural delights in this hilarious play with its talented cast and crew.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “The Play That Goes Wrong” will continue through Feb. 5 at the Lucie Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.