Playhouse Stage Company Scores a Bullseye With Their Season Opener, “Assassins”

The 1990 Stephen Sondheim musical, Assassins, is a horror story for our times. The play certainly could be produced as a comedy, played for laughs and high camp, but in today’s world, it is truly a modern-day horror story set to music. Under the proper direction, the play is startling, unsettling, and (perhaps most ironically), a much more frightening reflection of the world in which we live than when Sondheim penned it 30-plus years ago. 

The cast of Assassins (photo by Shawn Morgan)

Playhouse Stage Company has chosen to open its 35th season with this seminal production meticulously guided by PSC Producing Artistic Director, Owen Smith. Smith’s direction of this enormously talent-laden cast shows a keen eye for the ironic rather than the comic, the sad and torturous rather than the high-camp comedy that this production could have easily fallen victim to.

We are introduced to nine would-be presidential assassins including John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Linette “Squeaky” Fromme, and John Hinkley, as well as some lesser-known names like Samuel Byck and Giuseppe Zangara. They all interact with one another throughout time. The cast is introduced without names by The Proprietor, beautifully portrayed by Shawn Morgan, whose imposing figure commands the stage with both a sense of control and an ominous presence as he doles out the weapons for each of the killers. Morgan just gets better with time, the rich tones of his voice seduce the players and audience alike into a sense of kind comforting security. 

The cast of Assassins (photo by Shawn Morgan)

Enter The Balladeer, whom we actually see sitting on the stage as we enter the theater, staring blankly at the audience while behind him are projected images of all the presidents, intercut with a stirring rendition of a band playing John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”. Daniel Jameson returns to the Playhouse stage, offering a beautiful rich tenor voice as he leads the cast through their journey, only to be later revealed as someone other than who he appears. 

Dan Costello as Charles Guiteau, no stranger to area theater, offers the true comic element in this group. He sings, flits, jumps, dances, and eyes the audience, giving us a brief rest from the mayhem and violence swirling around the stage. 

“Unworthy of Your Love”, the often-recorded Sondheim love song/ballad, takes on a much darker meaning when heard within the context of the show, as it is strikingly performed by John Hinkley (Marc Christopher) and Squeaky Fromme (Michelle Oppedisano). The cast continues to offer a pool rich and deep in its talent, exemplified by Benita Zahn’s striking portrayal of Emma Goldman, a role she seems destined to keep recreating and perfectly inhabiting. (She appeared as the same character several seasons ago in the Playhouse production of Ragtime at Washington Park.) 

(l-r) Sam Perwin and Daniel Jameson (photo by Shawn Morgan)

Outstanding in his return to PSC is Sam Perwin as John Wilkes Booth. Perwin’s command of the stage, physical resemblance to Booth, and slithery rendition not unlike that of the snake from the Garden of Eden, makes each character fall under his spell and is totally absorbing.

On par with Smith’s fine direction is the entire technical side of the production.  Brian Axford’s musical direction steers this company flawlessly through some of Sondheim’s more difficult musical pieces. Ashley Simone Kirchner’s choreography is simple and effective, adding to but never detracting from the action of the music and the play. Gina Kowalski does a wonderful job, as the costume design flows seamlessly over myriad time periods. 

With the exception of some moments when the actors are either singing or speaking in shadows, this production soars. Assassins will make you rethink what you believe you know about the characters on the stage, and will certainly make you sit up and take notice of the world around you. It is truly amazing that a play written 30-plus years ago can be so incredibly timely, disturbing, and moving today. Assassins runs about one hour and forty minutes without an intermission, and you will be riveted to the stage the entire time. Playhouse Stage Company has certainly begun its 35th season with a bang…and has scored a hit.

Assassins runs Thursday through Sunday, October 30 at The Cohoes Music Hall on Remsen St., Cohoes. For more information or to purchase tickets: or call the box office: 518-434-0776.

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