We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


Sarah Marvel Bleasdale, Joshua Miller, Duncan Harman, and David Pasteelnick in Utopia Opera's production of Sondheim's Assassins

Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical Assassins was originally presented Off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons (we were there) and remounted on Broadway in 2004, garnering 5 Tony awards. It is just as relevant today, if not more so, largely due to the intransigence of the NRA and the vehemence of their followers.

Utopia Opera's decision to present it as their season opener was based, as these decisions are, on votes from the audience. This show got more votes than any other show that was nominated. 

Although some of Sondheim's oeuvre seem quite kin to opera, this one is more like a revue. Although the topic of presidential assassination is a highly serious one, the show gives it a gloss of black humor and Sondheim's music is unmatchable. His dialogue is twice as clever as it needs to be.

With slim biographical data to go on, the characters in the show are fully realized by John Weidman's excellent book: paranoid schizophrenics, disaffected immigrants, woefully misguided idealists, pathetic victims of an exploitative society, and all-around loonies.

The parts were brilliantly cast, effectively enacted, and well sung by a cast that seemed to bring serious vocal training from both the operatic camp and the Broadway camp. Happily, the voices were not amplified.

The versatile William Remmers stepped down from the podium to assume the role of The Proprietor in vaudeville guise, ready to provide guns to the would-be killers. It was a knock-out characterization.

The Balladeer who tells the story of the American Dream and narrates the proceedings was portrayed by Chazmond J. Peacock, in fine voice.

Joshua Miller made a strong impression as John Wilkes Booth--not only in the scene in which he is wounded and tries to justify his murder of President Lincoln, but later when he "inspires" and goads the others to attempt their heinous acts. Of all the performers, his English diction stood out.  We missed not a single word.

Lauren Gismondi made a marvelous Emma Goldman, both looking and sounding exactly right. Her scene with Leon Czolgosz (a fine Duncan Hartman), the killer of William McKinley, was one of our favorites.

For humor we had Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Kayla Ryan Walsh) carrying on about her "love affair" with Charles Manson, and Sara Jane Moore (Sarah Marvel Bleasdale gleefully interacting, then hilariously messing up their intended assassination of President Gerald Ford.

Matthew Hughes portrayed the pathetic Giuseppe Zangara who tried to kill FDR, and David Pasteelnick enacted the manic Charles Guiteau who did away with James Garfield. He laughed all the way to the hangman's noose.

Michael Matthias excelled as the patently delusional Sam Byck who failed to rid us of Richard Nixon. Zachary Barnes was fine as John Hinckley, Jr. who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan to make an impression on Jodie Foster!  Jeff Goble was excellent as the weak-willed and suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald, falling under the influence of John Wilkes Booth's spirit.

The 13-piece orchestra, heavy on the brass, was conducted by Benjamin Weiss. Sondheim made good use of the American idiom and at one point quoted Leonard Bernstein. Although the instrumental balance was fine, we felt the volume frequently overpowered the voices, including Mr. Remmers' introduction.

It is also fair to point out that the enunciation was not always as clear as it might have been, particularly on the part of The Balladeer. Sondheim's lyrics are so important that we wanted to hear every word. It occurs to us that surtitles are just as important for English as they are for foreign languages.

Utopia Opera is a perfect example of substituting creativity and imagination for a big budget; they have done so much with paltry resources. There was no scenery to speak of but the costuming (Eric Lamp and Angel Betancourt) seemed quite apropos to the periods. It was quite a challenge to mount a show like this and much credit goes to the company for doing such a fine job. Mr. Remmers himself directed.

It is arguably the job of the artist to hold a mirror up to society and reflect us back to ourselves.  At this performance we felt entertained, enlightened, squeamish, and a bit ashamed of our violent history.  We need to experience our dark side before we can change it. The show has been produced overseas and we can only imagine how Europeans must judge our outmoded infatuation with firearms and revenge.

There will be two shows today, matinée and evening--similarly on Sunday. Can you allow yourself to be entertained and changed at the same time?

(c) meche kroop

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