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From "Assassins:" Philip Farugia (Guiteau), Steve Copps (Czolgosz) and Ben Puglisi (Booth).
Nick Lama (Hinckley) & Arin Dandes (Fromme).

Sondheim by Second Generation Theatre at the New Phoenix

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, which is now being staged by Second Generation Theatre at the New Phoenix, is one of the great “concept musicals,” a show that, instead of being heavily plotted, explores an idea. With musicals like Company and Pacific Overtures to his credit, Sondheim is the master of the form. This production has been directed by Chris Cavanagh with choreography by Kristy Schupp.

I’ve seen two great productions of Assassins over the years. One was produced by Michael Hake and directed by Kelli Bocock-Natale here in Buffalo during the 1993-1994 season, featuring especially unforgettable work by Jeanmarie Lally and Sheila McCarthy as Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore; the Balladeer was Brian Harkins and Lee Harvey Oswald was Doug Weyand. The other was the Broadway production that starred Neil Patrick Harris as the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald—a bit of doubling that has also been followed at Second Generation.

At its best, Assassins is a lean and economical exploration of people who have assassinated American presidents, or who have tried. At the conclusion of a wild ride through some very dark comedy and somber introspection, we are left to contemplate whether presidential assassination in our country might not grow from our unhealthy national preoccupation with fame and success.

The greatest virtue of the current production is the music direction by Allan Paglia. The vocals sound particularly strong on the chorus numbers. There are sound problems—uneven amplification, acoustic dead spots—but overall, the singing here is sublime.

Actually, the production might have fared well as a concert version, because the excellence of the singing outruns the other elements by far. Cavanagh has employed unconventional staging with multiple playing areas, and in this instance, the result is unwieldy, creating obstacles for sightlines, sound, and pacing. The scene work is particularly lost in a show that boasts remarkably few songs.

Ben Puglisi is a standout in the role of John Wilkes Booth, affecting a cheerfully menacing and unequivocally deranged stage presence.

I enjoyed Geoff Pictor’s performance as Guiseppe Zangara, who killed the mayor of Chicago while aiming at Franklin Roosevelt; he vocalizes with a kind of musical wailing that impressively speaks the pain, the grief, and the anger of Zangara.

Steve Copps brings clarity and force to the role of brooding Leon Czolgosz, who every Buffalonian knows, shot William McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in 1901, just up the street from the New Phoenix Theatre.

Jacob Albarella sings with wicked allure as the Proprietor who invites the assembled crew of would-be killers to step up and kill a president.

Eric Rawski lends his incomparable comic gifts to the role of Sam Byck, who plotted to kill Richard Nixon by highjacking a plane while wearing a Santa suit. (The plane never left the ground).

The production features Jonathan Young as the balladeer/Oswald; Philip Farugia as Charles Guiteau; Arin Lee Dandes as Squeaky Fromme; Nick Lama as John Hinckley, and Michele Benzin as Sara Jane Moore. Each has moments of pleasing comedy.

For the ensemble, Second Generation has assembled an uncommonly strong crew of singers, who suffer from audibility issues in the acoustically challenged set up: Sophia Howes, Matthew Iwanski, Kevin Kennedy, Renee Landrigan, and Christopher Andreana.

For Assassins, the strongest playing area at the New Phoenix seems to be the floor (where I strongly urge you to select your seat if you can). When the cast hits this dramatic sweet spot, the show really soars at its best and showcases some smart choreography by Schupp.

The production continues through July 13th.