‘Assassins’ kills at the Firehouse Stage

Reviewed by Sarah Roche

I attended S.R.O. Productions III’s  April 9 opening night performance of “Assassins.” It was my first time at the Firehouse Stage of the Goodwill Theatre  in Johnson City. The venue goes above and beyond to make patrons comfortable with a police officer assisting in parking and well-cushioned chairs. The general seating set-up did leave me and the person next to me straining to see what was happening as characters sat on the stage, but a different layout could easily solve that issue. I would recommend getting to this theater at least a half-hour before the scheduled show time in order to have your pick of seating. 

“Assassins” is a Sondheim/Weidman musical that first opened off-Broadway in 1990, then won five Tony Awards with its 2004 Broadway performance. The musical’s explores the backgrounds of and relationships between the men and women who have attempted to or succeeded in assassinating a United States president. The subject matter is intense. At times the musical leans towards humorous and places the characters in Limbo, a fictional place where they interact and influence each other. At other times it is a history lesson, exploring the biography of the assassins in question with what little information is available.

John Wilkes Booth, played by Scott Fisher in S.R.O.’s production, is the pioneer and leader of the group of assassins. The audience is led through the musical by the Balladeer, in this case played wonderfully by Daniel Reilly, who alerts the audience to the assassins’ motives and the outcomes of their actions. Brendan Curtin played the role of Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President Garfield. His performance was also exemplary, especially during “The Ballad of Guiteau.” Margaret Lyon Smith filled the role of Sara Jane Moore splendidly, convincing the audience of her character’s flightiness. Megan Germond seemed to play the role of love-struck Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme with ease. Overall, the cast did a beautiful job with this performance.

I was very excited to see that the music would be played live with Vicky Gordon on piano, Greg SantaCrose on keyboard, Robin Warner on drums and Christine Cumming and Melanie Valencia on woodwinds. Unfortunately, the music did overpower the voices of the actors throughout the opening scenes. This was mostly remedied by “Unworthy of Your Love,” and the combo seemed to have the situation under control by the final scene. I’m sure this was just a case of opening night nerves, and I am confident that further performances will allow the audience to clearly hear the actors.

The audience was very receptive to this opening night performance, offering applause at the end of each scene. The audience as a whole jumped during the first firing of the assassins’ guns, but then became comfortable with the shots. This play is a commentary on society and democracy and those that take the lives of president’s in their hands. It is at times funny and at other times poignant. I left having learned more about history and feeling very sorry for the assassins. I was also a bit conflicted; had I just laughed at Samuel Byck’s drunken rants? I definitely recommend it for those that are looking for theater that makes you think and analyze your own perspectives. I enjoy leaving a play with a different perspective and some food for thought, so this was a win for me.

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5 Responses to "‘Assassins’ kills at the Firehouse Stage"

  1. I saw the second weekend’s Thursday performance. It was not very well attended, but the cast didn’t much care and put in a very energetic show. Aside from the Proprietor being hard to hear for a few words, I didn’t miss anything — but I’m one of those annoying Sondheim fans who know the words to songs cut from shows by heart.

    The sight lines really are not good there. I found a good seat on the aisle, but as soon as the lights went down, a young lady, unsatisfied with sitting with her friends plopped down in front of me, bobbing left and right and occasionally standing. I’m sure that the guy operating the camera behind me was even less appreciative. I barely restrained myself telling her that there were lots of better seats closer.

    One of the things to note is the pathetic note introduced into each assassin. Along with Dave Pierce’s Byck, Leon Czolgosz is particularly sympathetic, especially as portrayed by Gene Czebiniak. Curtin’s Guiteau is certainly deranged, but is it his fault?

    I should mention that it’s interesting to note that Margaret Lyon was Squeaky Fromme in SRO’s last “Assassins” and was , if possible, even funnier — although I loved Christy Barton’s lime-green Dacron pantssuit in the previous production.

    P.S. to Dave Pierce: LOVED the sign! Yes, I got it. It’s a good thing for you that people who would hate it would never go to see a Sondheim show.

  2. Chris

    I saw the final performance. I was not surprised by the excellent performances I saw. I was surprised that the space was really not set up for viewing or hearing these fine performances. I missed some things that were done on the floor/second level and even some things that happened lower/on the floor of the upper level, due to the close proximity of the stage area from the audience. I wish they had body microphoned the some of the singers, because, even when they were close by, I still couldn’t hear some of what they were singing. There were several who didn’t need them, but over all I felt the orchestra drowned out some part,s and the singers needed to sing out more consistently in several cases. My hearing is good, mind you. I think this is something that, hopefully, the Firehouse Stage will work on also to make this sort of theater setup work in the future, because frankly it bothered me, especially because I was missing some really great stuff!

  3. sarahroche

    I am sorry to read that I am not the only one who found the acoustics to be an issue. As I mentioned in my review, I had hoped that the issue would be cleared up in later performances. It is too bad that the setup of that theater hinders the performance. The actors did a wonderful job; it is a shame that they are being overshadowed by the venue and the music!

    Do you think that a seating arrangement without the center aisle would have helped the situation at al,l or does the venue need to invest in blocks to elevate the seats towards the back?

    Would the commentary about this venue make you reconsider seeing a show at the Firehouse?

  4. Chris

    I really feel that the Firehouse should invest in some sort of riser blocks. I truly would rethink going to the venue for a show like this, unless this were fixed. I will always support those I know when I am free, not being in a show myself, but the seating and sound were an issue, making a great performance somewhat irritating to sit through, and not because of the show itself.

  5. I’m afraid that, even at the final show, the acoustics were not balanced between the live music and the singing. After the first show, I can’t believe no one pointed out to the director that seating actors so low on the stage and not having the audience on rising platforms was, at the least, amateurish blocking. Even he sat an incredibly long time down there at the beginning of the show!

    It was terribly frustrating trying to see and hear the entire show. (The areas that I did see and hear were wonderful, and the live music was terrific, if a bit loud.)