Like its neighbor to the west in Chelsea, Dexter’s small Encore Theatre has its own celebrity connections. Founder Dan Cooney went to high school in Dexter. Now he’s a New York actor, and he’s married to a Broadway star, Jessica Grove, who will star in Encore’s August production of My Fair Lady. Eight years ago, Cooney opened Encore, which specializes in musical comedy. Now the theater has really hit its stride with Assassins, Stephen Sondheim’s ensemble of lunatics, outcasts, and outlaws who each tried to, or did, kill a president.
The brilliant Sondheim seems to have channeled the future when he wrote this in 1990 (book by John Weidman, but it’s all Sondheim), anticipating 2016 would bring income inequality as the main campaign issue as well as a national obsession with true crime. Billed as a dark comedy–that overused handle for any script that throws in a dash of irony or wit now and then–this show earns the label. Also earned in spades is the trigger warning in the program. In the opening number, “Everyone’s Got the Right,” you’ll see about a dozen firearms leveled directly at you. Sorry, does that sound like some grim, confrontational number about the Second Amendment? Nope, it’s a perky, aspirational song-and-dance number about the importance of having a big dream–it’s America, and no one can take that away from you!
The quality of the acting is astounding. Several scenes give you about the cheapest trip to Broadway-quality theater you could hope for (about $30 a ticket, though Dexter has a couple of nice restaurants that might entice you to spend more before or after the show). One such scene is the first time the darkly handsome David Moan comes on stage and gives that one-two punch. First you think he was cast for the part because he looks so damn dapper and John Wilkes Booth-like in that nineteenth-century frock coat, followed by the knockout punch when he starts to sing. Another top-flight professional moment is Keith Allan Kalinowski’s commanding monologue as Samuel Byck, one of history’s more obscure failed presidential assassins (of Nixon). Carly Snyder and Sarah Briggs have an awesome chemistry between them as Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, two women who tried to kill Gerald Ford. (The show’s meeting is fictional, though the two were contemporaries.) And I wished Dan Morrison had gotten more of a laugh in his brief turn as Ford. It seemed most of the audience was too young to appreciate the spot-on caricature.
If there’s a soft spot, it’s a labored number toward the end when all the assassins come to life, swirling around Lee Harvey Oswald to convince him to join their ranks. Maybe some bells, whistles, or extravagant effects would punch up this creaky Seventies-style “dream sequence,” but no production should need to go to such lengths. Especially this one, which is as beautifully clear and simple as a piece of Shaker furniture.
Encore uses a live orchestra, directed by Tyler Driskill. They are so well concealed and so able that if you didn’t know better you’d think the show was using a prerecorded sound track. I didn’t know better, because the program neglected to credit them–by now, an insert has been added.
The show runs Thursday to Sunday through July 3.