Assasins Hits The Bullseye
The reviews from critics and audiences across the board have been RAVE ones!
I don't think I can be any prouder than I am now of the exceptionally talented and collaborative team of artists I've been surrounded by these past few weeks. The level of work that has gone into and the creative process for Assassins is unlike any I have been through before. This cast and technical crew are SPECTACULAR. What they are doing is blowing people away and it's been an honor to work with all of them on our production.
A special thank you to my partner in theatre crime, Danny Hoskins. It's been an absolute joy creating this together, my friend. I'm so excited to share our vision with an audience! Thank you for your talent, passion and faith in me. Also, to my friend and musical director Andy Pratt - dude you made an amazing orchestra out of actors! It's been a wonderful and thrilling ride dolls.
This cast is insane! Here are some awesome highlights from our rave reviews! ☺️ . . .
"It’s wonderfully chaotic but with a masterful control that keeps the audience’s attention even though the material is incredibly dark."
- JaNee Allen, NYTheatreGuide.com
"'Assassins' is one of Stephen Sondheim's most unusual and fascinating works -- and I'm happy to report that Blackfriars Theatre has mounted a wonderful, colorful production." -Jack Garner
"'Blackfriars Theatre has mounted a terrific version of a difficult show. Hamilton fans take note: Assassins got there first. You’ll be thinking about this one weeks after the curtain comes down."
-Michael Galvin, KidsOutAndAbout
"'Assassins' is part history lesson, part black comedy, and wholly enjoyable."
-Leah Stacy, CITY Newspaper
"A night of pure brilliance tonight at Blackfriars." - Audience Member
"Congratulations to the multi talented cast and production team of Assassins! So many fine, nuanced and character driven performances. Bravo to Danny and Janine for such clear, masterful and inventive story telling. If you havent seen it yet, go! It is not to be missed!" - Audience Member
Democrat and Chronicle
by Jeff Spevak
Danny Hoskins apologizes for the chaos.
It was standing-room only last week at Blackfriars Theatre — the new seats had yet to be installed — and rehearsals for the company’s season-opening offering were on the verge of coming together. There’s the smell of glue from the new carpet, that might induce some dangerously creative thinking. And the play, Assassins, compounds the chaos: A musical about nine people who assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, a president of the United States of America.
A musical about presidential assassins! With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, an icon of the theater who last year was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Not an easy subject to sell,” concedes Hoskins, in his second season as Blackfriars’ artistic director. But perhaps not his hardest sell. “It’s tied for first with The Pillowman, which I directed at Blackfriars six years ago,” he says. “A dark comedy about child murders.”
Assassins opens Sept. 2 and runs through Sept. 24, and the 126 comfy new seats will be in place at the intimate venue on East Main Street. As assurance that the Rochester theater community has the Sondheim cultural canon covered, he is also the composer behind Geva Theatre Center’s season-opening musical in October, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. A different kind of chaos.
But that’s how theater people work, isn’t it?
Janine Mercandetti, who’s co-directing Assassins with Hoskins, is gliding on a swing suspended from the room’s ceiling rafters. Below her, 14 high-spirited actors are chatting, singing, fiddling with props. Blowing off excess energy. They’re young, that’s what the young do.
Mercandetti descends from the swing and calls the actors to gather in a circle around her. She leads them in an exercise that involves shaking their limbs, then holding hands as they sloooooowly roll their heads, their shoulders, then bend toward the floor, stretching those vertebrae. “Take a breath in,” she says. “Take a breath out,” she says.
Breathing. It’s an acting thing.
They gather around a piano as Andy Pratt of Brighton leads the group in some vocal flexibility exercises. Choruses of sounds, buzzing, humming.
Harmony. It’s a musical thing.
Then everything seems to be happening at once. Actors rummage through the detritus of the oncoming show. Foam heads of presidents: Lincoln, Ford, Reagan. Music stands, a wig on a Styrofoam head, costumes spilling out of open cardboard boxes, empty liquor bottles, a sketch of what the completed set will look like, half-century-old copies of Playboy magazine. And at least three ladders. Where are they going?
Open musical instrument cases are scattered about. Trumpets, French horn, flute, drums, banjo, accordion, two pianos. This is one of the changes that Hoskins has brought to this production. Rather than a pit band, the entire company of actors play the instruments. That device has been used before, although it is rare. In a 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, even Patti LuPone tooted a couple of notes on a tuba.
Another departure: “The original script opens in the shooting gallery of a carnival, and the proprietor sets everyone off on their path,” Hoskins says. “He’s handing them guns, calling them to action.” But Blackfriars’ presentation broadens the setting, with a two-level backdrop representing a carnival. “The balloon pop, the milk-bottle toss,” he says. “People walking around with candy boxes strapped around them. The cut-out posters where you can stick your head through a hole and get your picture taken as the Bearded Lady.”
And the carnival workers. “They themselves become the characters,” Hoskins says. “In putting on a jacket, putting on a hat, they become the character in front of our eyes.”
Oh, Sondheim and John Weidman, who wrote the book, will still recognize their work. “It’s just a conceptual shift,” Hoskins says. “All the language and all of the music is as written in the script.”
At last week’s rehearsal, the assassins’ weapons were laid out on a table: They’re made of carved wood and clothespins, like the fake guns prisoners used to make when they were planning a break out of Alcatraz.
Nine historical assassins appear in Assassins, including John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln; Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield; Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley in Buffalo; and Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated John F. Kennedy.
“The three Oswalds have learned the flute part,” Hoskins says.
That’s right, three different actors are poised to play Kennedy’s assassin. Which one gets the part each night of the show depends on who draws the short straw as the story unfolds. As the winner – or is it loser? – nears Oswald’s appointment with destiny, two actors form a book depository window out of rope. As a chorus builds, Oswald (at last week’s rehearsal it was Lani Toyama Hoskins) levels a preposterous-looking rifle at JFK’s motorcade. The gun is constructed from wooden chair spindles. Oswald shoots. The chorus stops. The actors pick up their instruments and begin playing a tune. It is a dirge-like “Hail to the Chief.” Oswald grabs a flute. “He joins the group musically,” Danny Hoskins says. Oswald’s in the infamous club.
Of the assassins, Hoskins says, Oswald “becomes the most-important, story-wise. Booth is the catalyst for the story in this limbo they are in. He becomes the catalyst for Oswald to shoot the president, in order to validate the past assassins, validate them in the future.”
Actors frequently ask writers and directors, “What’s my character’s motivation?” So, what’s the motivation of these assassins, Oswald in particular?
“This is the one that really shook the world,” Toyama Hoskins says; she is married to Danny Hoskins, so their recent conversations over dinner must be particularly bloody. “It’s almost a rite of passage for him to be in this group. After the shot, there’s almost a sigh of relief. He’s finally accomplished something after so many failures in his life.”
Yet some of the assassins of Assassins failed when their moment on history’s stage was at hand. Gerald Ford, historically as nondescript as presidents come, was actually the target of two unsuccessful attempts. Both by women. The play takes literary license with history by combining the two incidents.
There is chaos in Assassins’ theatrical structure. In describing Assassins’ interfacing of carnival workers and historical assassins, Toyama Hoskins uses the phrase “parallel universes.” Abby Adair Reinhard says it “bends the space-time continuum.” The Pittsford resident is Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one would-be Ford assassin. Reinhard says Fromme’s motivation was to draw attention to Charles Manson; she was on the fringe of the murderer’s cult, and didn’t actually want to shoot Ford.
“I wanted to kill him,” Rachel Walsh says with assurance. The Rochester actor plays Sara Jane Moore. Moore, who shot at Ford but missed, didn’t have the purple hair that Walsh is sporting at the rehearsal. “All of these themes from years ago have really come through," Walsh says. "It definitely resonates with the national conversation today.”
One of those themes? “Not feeling we can achieve the American dream,” Walsh says. “People expect the new president to fix everything. And they blame this one figurehead for every problem in the nation.”
“The whole show is kind of morose,” Reinhard concedes. “Hysterically funny at times, morose other times.”
How is comedy presented when presidents are being shot? In one scene, Reinhard and Rachel Walsh scramble to pick up the bullets that have fallen out of Moore’s gun; Ford helps pick them up. The accident-prone Moore also has her dead dog in her purse during that scene, but that’s kind of a running joke through the play.
Other reasons for shooting a president seem abstract. “You know why I did it?” bellows Steve Cena, as Samuel Byck. “Because there isn’t any Santa Claus.”
We don’t know if Byck actually said this. In 1974, Byck attempted to hijack an airliner ready to take off from the airport in Washington, D.C., and fly it into the White House, hoping to kill President Richard Nixon. But the plot didn’t get off the ground after Byck shot the two pilots, and he killed himself after being wounded by a policeman.
But we do know this, says Cena, a Massachusetts native who’s lived here for years now: “Byck is the everyman.
“He isn’t going anywhere in life, nothing is going the way it’s supposed to,” Cena says. And there is something in Byck’s virtually forgotten moment in history that resonates today as well. In his plan to fly a hijacked jet into the White House, “They reference him in the 9/11 reports.”
Assassins is tough, uncertain territory. “It wasn’t well received when it opened off-Broadway in ’91,” Hoskins concedes. But theater companies kept at it, and in 2001 it was set for Broadway. Until 9/11, when the producers and cast decided Assassins was inappropriate for the moment and pulled the show.
But it returned in 2004, with Neil Patrick Harris as Oswald. It won five Tony Awards.
“The music is so intricate and beautiful and moving and filled with all of this passion, I don’t know how to say it even,” Hoskins says of Sondheim’s compositions. “I think the reason people come back to this piece is because of his ability as a musician and as a songwriter.”
It’s that chaotic dichotomy of artistic beauty and a difficult theme.
“I’ve heard Weidman and Sondheim talk about how they wanted to get behind the actions of these people, the horrible acts they committed,” Hoskins says. “This was really about the characters, about the human side of them. What motivates them? What humanizes them? What is it about the culture in America? We want to know why people do these horrible things.
“As a culture, we feed into the need to have that explanation. The need to have the knowledge of how it happened, why it happened. I didn’t want to make a commentary on whether these acts were good or bad or horrible. It’s just to lay this out there, and let people decide why they did what they did.”
If you go:
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 2; 8 p.m. Sept. 3; 2 p.m. Sept. 4; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8; 8 p.m Sept. 9; 8 p.m. Sept. 10; 2 p.m. Sept. 11; 8 p.m. Sept. 17; 2 p.m. Sept. 18; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22; 8 p.m. Sept. 24.
Where: Blackfriars Theatre, 795 E. Main St.
Tickets: Ranging from $20 to $39.95, available at blackfriars.org.
Two of my dearest friends, Dan Howell and Scott Falkowski, asked me to be the officiant of their wedding. This is what happens when you put an actress in charge . . .
Assassins Is Killer
We are in our second week of rehearsal for Assassins and I am STOKED! This cast is just fantastic! We have a crazy, challenging and bold concept for this production that is pushing the cast and creative to give 200%. This cast is killing it! I am so proud of the work they are doing. I can't wait to see where we land for opening night.
About our production:
Touted as “bold, disturbing, and alarmingly funny,” Assassins lays bare the lives of nine individuals who assassinated or tried to assassinate the President of the United States. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman bend the rules of time and space, taking us on a nightmarish roller coaster ride in which assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact and inspire each other to harrowing acts in the name of the American Dream. Join us for a gritty, stark and visceral ‘re-imaging’ of this multiple Tony Award-winning theatrical tour-de-force tailored specifically for the Blackfriars stage!
Tickets at www.blackfriars.org!
Bernstein on Broadway
I had the pleasure last weekend of performing a little West Side Story for my go-to MD, Brian Clickner's, Bernstein on Broadway Concert at SUNY Brockport! My girl Robyn and I were reunited! Maria and Anita in the house! Here are a few fun backstage photos of us before the show. I just love these two. <3
My Director's Hat
I am excited to share that I am putting on my director's hat for a bit these next few months and it started this past weekend!
It was a creatively wonderful whirlwind weekend at Blackfriars Theatre! Beginning Friday night, Blackfriars held the first ever musical theatre festival here in Rochester and I had the pleasure of directing one of the musicals. It was an incredibly rewarding day, surrounded by giving, talented, kind, people.
I am also thrilled to share that I will be co-directing Assassins at Blackfriars Theatre this fall! Here are the details of the show below!
I can't wait to get started on this one!
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.
Directed by Danny Hoskins & Janine Mercandetti
Musical Direction by Andy Pratt
DATES: September 2 through 24, 2016
“It’s a brilliant show, filled with dark, demented humor.” – Associated Press
Touted as “bold, disturbing, and alarmingly funny,” Assassins lays bare the lives of nine individuals who assassinated or tried to assassinate the President of the United States. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman bend the rules of time and space, taking us on a nightmarish roller coaster ride in which assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact and inspire each other to harrowing acts in the name of the American Dream. Join us for a gritty, stark and visceral ‘re-imaging’ of this multiple Tony Award-winning theatrical tour-de-force tailored specifically for the Blackfrairs stage!
I know it's St. Paddy's Day. But let's think pink, shall we? Some fun shots of Grease! Publicity, backstage, onstage and out and about photos! Professional photography Jorge Samper and Nicolas Samper. Candids by yours truly! :)
You're The One That I Want
I am ecstatic to share that I will be playing the tough, vulnerable and sarcastic leader of the Pink Ladies - Betty Rizzo in Grease at the Kodak Theatre this March!
I think you literally have to live under a rock to not know Grease (right?) but here's a summary of the show. Ticket information coming soon!
It’s 1959, and Rydell High School’s senior class is in rare form. The too-cool-for-school “Burger Palace Boys” are stealing hub-caps and acting tough and their gum-snapping, chain-smoking “Pink Ladies” are looking hot in bobby sox and pedal pushers. The 1950s high school dream is about to explode in this rollicking musical that is both an homage to the idealism of the fifties and a satire of high schoolers’ age-old desire to be rebellious, provocative and rebellious. The whole gang sings and dances through such hit songs as "Greased Lightnin'", "We Go Together”, and “Mooning”, recalling the music of Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Elvis Presley that became the soundtrack of a generation. Starting off with an eight-year Broadway run, Grease is among the world’s most popular musicals!!
When You Wish Upon A Star
What an incredible gift this week has been. Doing a one woman show was hands down the most challenging artistic undertaking of my life. It was also hands down the most rewarding. Out Of Costume was a journey of pure love and a creative and personal dream come true. I am so moved and humbled by how our audiences embraced my soul. My heart is truly full. Thank you doesn't adequately express the gratitude I feel for this journey these last 6 months. The unbelievable reception and loving support of my most personal work is overwhelming in the best possible way. Thank you to those who shared it with me and to those who made it possible. I can't wait to start my next one. Dreams really do come true. Magic. <3
Happy New Year!