If the assassins had been on trial instead of on stage, there might have been a hung jury.
In the lobby of the Manatee Performing Arts Center after the opening night performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” a lot of audience members were less than enthusiastic. Some even said they had been bored. A lot of other people were ebullient, talking about how much they loved the show.
Obviously, “Assassins” is not for all tastes.
It’s the material itself, not the Manatee Players production, that causes the rift in opinions. It’s difficult to believe anyone could have disliked the performances, from one of the most uniformly talented and charismatic casts the Manatee Players has assembled in recent years — with several enthralling performers and a pronounced dearth of weak ones. Also commendable are the music from the full-sounding five-piece pit orchestra directed by William Coleman, the clever direction by Rick Kerby, and the sets, lights and costumes, all of which were rich and flavorful. (Ken Mooney designed the set, Joseph P. Oshry the lights and Becky Evans the costumes.)
But the musical itself is difficult for some people. Sondheim is known his complex compositions, which challenge both performers and listeners, and the mostly unhummable score of “Assassins” is quintessential Sondheim, all the more so because of its mix of musical styles.
The structure of the show, which is virtually plotless and skips around in time from the 1860s to the 1970s, but mostly lives in an ethereal timeless, placeless setting, is even more challenging for audiences. The foul language, and the lack of sympathetic characters might turn off some people, too.
The musical concerns people who have killed or tried to kill American presidents. They’re all there together, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, and they all discuss amongst themselves their crimes and their motivations. Many are driven by a yearning to be significant and remembered; some have a warped patriotism; and some (especially Sara Jane Moore and Charles Guitaeu, who killed James A. Garfield) are just plain wacky.
It’s a gloomy musical a lot of the time, but it’s also a lot of fun. Some of the best moments come during the scenes dominated by Michelle Anaya as Moore and Sarah Cassidy as Squeaky Fromme, who tried to kill Gerald Ford within a few weeks of each other. The two Manatee Players stalwarts work beautifully together. They also deliver some of the show’s best vocal performances as well as some of the best comic moments.
Other Manatee Players regulars in the cast include Brian Chunn, who’s a very menacing Booth, and Michael Bajjaly, in a hilarious and essentially non-musical role as Samuel Byck. (Byck tried to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House.)
Maxwell C. Bolton, a Manatee Players newcomer, plays the Balladeer, a fictional character who’s sort of a narrator. Bolton has a beautiful tenor voice and you can’t help but hope that you’ll get to see him in shows in which he’ll have more than a couple of songs.
Sondheim doesn’t write pop music, and “Assassins” isn’t a pop musical. It requires attention and involvement, and a lot of people don’t go to musicals to be attentive and involved. For those who are willing to put a bit of their own psyche into the show (and to sit for two hours with no intermission, which presents challenges of a different sort), the rewards of “Assassins” are profound.
Details: Through Nov. 13, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $27-$37. 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.