Reviewed by Stevie Visser
It was an extremely exciting night at the Flint Repertory Theatre Friday as many anxious faces anticipated the opening of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Tony Award-winning musical Assassins. As the first Signature Series performance of their inaugural season, Sondheim’s thought-provoking musical, staged in Flint Repertory Theatre’s Elgood Theatre, perfectly captured the intimacy required for such a heavy piece.
While we waited for the performance to begin, we listened to many people fawning over the intricacies of the set and lighting. After all, Shane Cinal’s scenic design and Chelsie McPhilimy’s lighting design was absolutely breathtaking. I’m not sure if it was the incredible hand-painted backdrop that lined the back of the stage, or the hand-crafted letters that exclaimed “Shoot the Prez” all individually lit and exuding a burlesque-grade spectacle. Perhaps it was the backlit antique-paper quality portraits of past Presidents with bulls eyes on their temples. It must have been a little bit of everything.
Director Michael Lluberes has assembled an incredible ensemble cast to tackle this extremely ambitious piece. The actors worked extremely well together, and it was evident that they did not take the task of bringing these Assassins to life lightly. Lluberes should be commended on his sensational cast of scary little freak killers.
Chris French (AEA) played the role of John Wilkes Booth. His perfectly crafted accent coupled with his beautiful singing voice and villainous demeanor brought this character to life. Every movement and every facial expression was so intentional. We really enjoyed his performance. The formidable Jason Briggs portrayed Charles Guiteau flawlessly. His characterization of the legendary psychopath was incredible. His fiery eyes and exaggerated physical movements were the perfect recipe for portraying this character who suffered from grandiosity. The tonality of Briggs’ beautiful voice coupled with his impressive acting chops complimented each other very well.
While every member of this company played their roles impressively, the female characters were especially impressive. Let’s begin with Beth Guest (AEA) as Sara Jane Moore. Guest was absolutely tremendous in this role. Sometimes it’s so difficult to access these ordinary human characters, and yet she does it in such a wholesome way. Her timing is impeccable, and her “Charlie” scene with Mary Paige Rieffel nearly brought down the entire house. Speaking of impressive women, Rieffel’s portrayal of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme is some pretty scary stuff. Her Fromme is dark, stunningly beautiful and absolutely terrifying. If Rieffel’s inspiring scene work doesn’t catch your attention, her gorgeous singing voice will leave you weeping. Her performance was among one of our favorites throughout the night.
Paul Nelson portrayed the role of the proprietor with much precision. We appreciated every single movement and every single choice. Nelson is after all a showboat. He commands the stage in a powerful way and brought such an incredible authenticity to the role.
Now, I am a sucker for a beautiful tenor voice, especially when matched with powerful presence on stage. So if anyone caught my attention it was Scott Anthony Joy (AEA). He had a beautiful voice. When he first opened his mouth in “The Ballad of Booth”, there was a noticeable aura in the room of complete respect for this amazing vocalist. And of course he transitioned well from the Balladeer to his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald. Very well done. Mark Gmazel, Michael Pacholski, Alexander Trice and Zachary Wood rounded out this cast all providing tremendous vocals, and very well crafted scene work.
Congratulations to Director Michael Lluberes and Music Director Frank Pitts III on an impressive opening at the Flint Repertory Theatre. If you enjoy heavy theatre that makes you think and ask questions, we highly recommend this incredible piece of art right in the heart of Flint.
Assassins continues through November 18th at the Flint Repertory Theatre’s Elgood Theatre. For more information and tickets contact the box office at 810-237-1530/810-237-7333 or online at www.flintrep.org