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Signature's Summer Smash: 'Assassins'

Joe Calarco directs Sondheim's dark comedy.

Nothing succeeds quite like success. Signature Theater's summer musical "Assassins" was such a success before it even opened that the originally announced run was all but sold out so the theater announced an extension. When those tickets went on sale, people started snapping them up without waiting for reports from the opening.

No wonder: this is the second time that Signature Theatre has presented this musical by Stephen Sondheim. The first time they did it was back in the 1992-93 season and it won the theater its second straight Helen Hayes Award for the outstanding musical of the year.

Back then it was directed by the company's artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, who won his second Helen Hayes Award in a row as the outstanding director of a musical. This time Schaeffer is busy across the river at the Kennedy Center directing a revival of Jerry Herman's "Mame" with Christine Baranski, so Joe Calarco was asked to helm "Assassins" in Arlington.

That's hardly a sacrifice given that Calarco was the director of last year's Helen Hayes Award winning musical at Signature, "Urinetown." He, too, won the award for outstanding direction of a musical. Not only that, but "Assassins" stars Will Gartshore, who starred in "Urinetown," and also walked away with the Helen Hayes Award.

Is the show as good as was expected or hoped based on its pedigree?

Nearly so. It certainly provides a string of strong performances, solidly satisfying ensemble singing as well as some very good solos and a great visual design.

BEING A DARKER PIECE, it may disappoint those who were hoping for another piece of triviality like "Urinetown," but they should have known that Mr. Sondheim doesn't deal in frivolities. No, this year it is a deeper, more philosophical and quite a bit more disturbing show that is being staged in Signature's 136 seat black-box theater that they are using until their new home across Four Mile Run in Shirlington is ready. The space has been set up in a myriad of arrangements over the years but never quite like it is for this production.

Calarco and set designer James Kronzer came up with a way to put the audience literally into the middle of the action. They place the audience in seats on risers that face an equal bank of seats on risers -- but that duplicate space is occupied by the actors staring back at the audience.

Then, once the action gets going, the actors leap up for their own scenes only to recline in other seats when they aren't required for a while. The line between the two, the real audience and the seats occupied by the cast, gets blurred just as Calarco obviously intended. In his notes in the show's program, he said "our goal with this production was to blur the line between 'us' and 'them.'" They certainly succeeded.

A difficulty with the strange setting, however, is that it spreads the cast over an unusually wide and deep area and there are times when characters are singing duets across the wide gulf and at different distances from the orchestra. This is a challenge for musical director Jon Kalbfliesch to create the blend we have come to expect of musicals in this space where the singers go without microphones and the orchestra is completely acoustic. Perhaps with more performances, the ensemble will find that balance.

Individual members of the cast are very good with a number of real standouts. Donna Migliaccio is back from the production of fourteen years ago in the same role — that of Sarah Jane Moore, one of two who try to assassinate President Jerry Ford. She was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award then — and she's just gotten stronger this time.

Will Gartshore is splendid as the take-charge but demented John Wilkes Booth, who, in this imaginative dark fantasy, not only assassinates Abraham Lincoln, but leads all the assassins of history in an effort to talk the depressed loner Lee Harvey Oswald, who is about to commit suicide, into killing President Kennedy instead.

It gives new meaning to the concept of a JFK assassination conspiracy.

Oswald is played by Stephen Gregory Smith who also opens the show as "The Balladeer" singing "The Ballad of Booth." Smith has been good in shows here at Signature before and he does possess a pleasant singing voice. This time out he adds a new dimension, acting the songs as well as singing them, reinforcing many of the ideas behind the always complex lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. It is a most impressive performance.

"Assassins" is a frequently fascinating and thoroughly entertaining show, especially when it is Stephen Sondheim's songs that are being performed. It drags a bit during the non-singing scenes, however. Sondheim's collaborator, John Weidman can be credited for many of the fascinating concepts of the script and his writing of the opening and of the final confrontation scene between Booth and Oswald is thoroughly captivating.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.