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Killing me softly: front row (l–r)Rebekah Dahl (Sara Jane Moore), Luke Wrobel (Leon Czolgosz; middle row (l–r) Michael J. Ross (Lee Harvey Oswald), Braden Hunt (Charles Guiteau), Eric Ferguson (John Hinckley), Cay Taylor (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme); back row (l–r) Brad Scarborough (John Wilkes Booth), Eric Edward Schell (Giuseppe Zangara), John Gremillion (Sam Byck) in Music Box Theatre’s Assassins.

Music Box Theatre’s ‘Assassins’ addresses consequences of emotional isolation
by Donalevan Maines
Photo by Jesse Talamantes

On Broadway, Michael J. Ross got to sing a medley of music from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. This month, he returns the favor by co-directing and starring in Sondheim’s Assassins as the first Music Box Musicals production, October 19–November 11, at The Music Box Theater in the Upper Kirby District.

“I saw the 2004 production on Broadway—my friend was in it, I saw it three times—and I was absolutely captivated by it,” says Ross, who was the music director for shows at Masquerade Theatre until it closed this year.

In fact, the cast of 16 includes 15 former Masquerade company members, handing Ross and co-director/co-choreographer Kristina Sullivan a dream-team of actors to open Music Box Musicals’ inaugural season. “Top to bottom, the cast is absolutely ideal,” says Ross.

On Broadway, Assassins won five Tony Awards, including best musical revival, with out actors Neil Patrick Harris and Mario Cantone among the performers portraying the nine men and women who have assassinated or attempted to assassinate U.S. presidents.

“Our approach to Assassins is proving to be very intimate and theatrical,” says Ross, describing how The Music Box Theater’s entire stage and seating areas are utilized to suggest a carnival shooting gallery and other scenes in the revue-style show. “We completely engage the audience by literally putting them in the middle of the storytelling. That’s the kind of theater I love creating, and look forward to bringing to the Houston community.”

The Music Box collaboration plans to follow Assassins with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee next April 5–28, and Little Shop of Horrors July 5–21, 2013.

Assassins is a warped and tuneful history of the sad underbelly of the American dream. “I love the humor and the darkness of it,” says Ross, who basically narrates the show as The Balladeer. “My character is positive and upbeat, but he undergoes a tranformation at the end that’s very shocking.”

Assassins features all five Music Box sketch comedy regulars, coming off “Happily Ever at the Box,” which spoofs the fairytale genre, through October 13. The dashing Brad Scarborough plays John Wilkes Booth, the role in which Michael Cerveris won Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 2004. Rebekah Dahl and Cay Taylor portray Sarah Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, respectively, with Luke Wrobel as President William McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz.

Out actor Eric Edward Schell is cast as Giuseppe Zangara, who shot a Chicago mayor, although it’s believed that Franklin D. Roosevelt was his intended target.

Charles Guiteau, who killed President James A. Garfield, is portrayed by Braden Hunt. Eric Ferguson plays John Hinckley, who tried to impress actress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan.

Entrusted with one of the show’s most pivotal roles is John Gremillion as Samuel Byck, an unemployed former soldier who tried to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House. “He has two amazing monologues about the world refusing to listen,” says Ross, underlining how Assassins is “a story about the need in each of us to connect, to belong to something greater than ourselves.

“Ultimately, the play cautions us about what we’re capable of doing if we have no way of expressing ourselves, if we feel that we are of no value or that society has completely dismissed us,” he adds. “It’s not my intent to preach about our current political climate, but the less dialogue we have, the more we retreat into separate corners. We see what refusing to listen can lead to.”

The show’s ensemble includes out actors Marco Camacho, Adam Delka, and John Dunn, along with Stephanie Bradow-Hunt, Duncan Lambert, Liz Tinder, and Sullivan, who calls the ensemble “the Everyman of the show.”

“We are the voice of the American people, looking at a society that is built on high hopes, but where such tragedies can happen,” explains Sulivan. “We allow the audience to grieve a little.”

Dunn is the newcomer to the reunion of Masquerade performers in Assassins. Ross explains, “I saw him perform in two shows at Theatre Lab, loved his work, and asked him to be a part of the cast.”

Ross is a Dallas native who grew up in nearby Corsicana, where he jumped head-first into choir and theater when he was in fifth grade. After high school, he attended Hardin-Simmons Univeristy in Abilene on a full scholarship.

In 1999, Ross moved to Houston to attend graduate school at Rice University, where he earned a master’s degree in music in 2001.

Paul Hope cast him as Young Ben in the first Bayou City Concert Musical, Sondheim’s Follies.

Ross first appeared with Masquerade as Anthony in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Among his other Houston credits include shows at Theatre Under the Stars, Main Street Theater, Stages Repertory Theatre, and A.D. Players.

Ross, who also serves as music director for Assassins, spent almost four years in the Big Apple, where a highlight was participating in Sondheim’s 75th birthday concert at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. It was directed by Tony Award winner Richard Maltby Jr., with music direction by Kevin Stites. Along with Cerveris, the all-star cast included Matthew Broderick, Barbara Cook, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Jason Danieley, John Dossett, Harvey Evans, Dame Edna Everage, Harvey Fierstein, Whoopi Goldberg, George Hearn, Judy Kuhn, Nathan Lane, Rebecca Luker, Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Debra Monk, Mandy Patinkin, Michele Pawk, Bernadette Peters, Kurt Peterson, David Hyde Pierce, Tonya Pinkins, Lonny Price, Alice Ripley, Chita Rivera, Marti Rolph, Virginia Sandifur, Jim Walton, and B.D. Wong.

Music Box Musicals was created to provide quality, intimate, professional theatrical experiences for the Greater Houston community, with a focus on employing Houston-based theater artists, says Ross.

When: October 19 –November 11
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Sunday matinee November 4 at 2 p.m.
Where: The Music Box Theater
2623 Colquitt
Tickets: $35–$45
Info: 713/522-7722 • themusicboxtheater.com
Note: Contains adult language and content consistent with “R-rated” films.

Donalevan Maines wrote about the Emmys in the September issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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