‘Assassins’ right on target

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“Saying yes was definitely taking a risk,” admits Jaime Love, executive director of Sonoma Arts Live, describing her feelings about pulling the trigger on Narrow Way Stage Company’s acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim’s unlikely-sounding musical “Assassins.”

“All concerns aside, I definitely think it paid off,” she continues, noting that the infamous-sounding show – closing this weekend – has drawn some of the most positive and appreciative audience feedback ever received in response to a Sonoma Arts Live show. “Sondheim is real theater,” Love adds. “It makes people think.”

It also sounds good.

Sondheim, after all, writes musicals.

“Assassins” -–a loosely connected series of vignettes about the nine real-life historical figures who at some point attempted to kill an American president – certainly sounds implausible as a musical.

But Sondheim has had hits with offbeat material before, having created such hard-to-categorize classics as “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Company.”

That said, “Assassins” was never going to be an easy sell, given the controversial subject matter, and the relative obscurity of some of the historical figures it represents.

“Sonomans can be fairly cautious and conservative in their theater choices,” allows Love, “but I’ve heard from a lot of people who came to the show in its first weekends, and told me that they found it incredibly thought provoking, incredibly moving, and extremely well done – and that they were glad that they came. But they had to step out of their comfort zone to buy a ticket!”

That willingness to take a chance on something unlikely or challenging is one of the things Love hopes to encourage in Sonoma Valley audiences, at the same time making it clear that Sonoma Arts Live intends to keep blending shows like “Assassins” with better-known crowd-pleasers such as “Nunsense,” which kicked off the season. That said, Love suggests with a sense of palpable relief, that sometimes taking a chance is worth it, for an audience and the person deciding which shows to program.

“One couple came up to me in tears after ‘Assassins,’ and they told me it was the best thing they’d ever seen in Sonoma,” says Love. “They said that everyone who loves theater owed it to themselves to see it. Another person called up the next day and said, ‘I can’t shake this show. It’s just stayed with me.’ This is the kind of play that really changes how people see the power of the musical art form.”

Love admits that this production, which closes out the current season of Sonoma arts Live shows, marks a satisfying ending to a year that has seen significant audience growth, following a couple of rocky years, and a number of recent changes, from a switch-up of names and a shift in how shows are selected.

“In the past, it was a little more difficult,” she says, explaining that Sonoma Arts Live – formerly called Sonoma Theatre Alliance – was originally formed as a theater co-op, with a group of resident companies each choosing their own plays, some of which have been well received, some decidedly not. This year, Love invited the companies to each nominate a number of shows they’d be interested in presenting, and then an appointed “season selection committee” read each play and put together a season.

“The question we asked ourselves,” says Love, “was, ‘What would make the coolest, most interesting season?’” For the season closer, it was a toss-up between ‘Clue: The Musical,” and “Assassins.” “Ultimately, we just said, ‘Assassins’ is a great show! Let’s just do it.”

Beyond the challenges of the subject matter, another trick is the sheer enormity of the production itself, demanding rapid changes between a carnival shooting gallery and a string of different parks, fairs, barnyards, prisons, cars - and one famous book repository in Texas – where various characters from John Wilkes Booth to Squeaky Fromme tell their astonishing, sometimes funny, sometimes deeply sad stories.

“I don’t think anyone can say that Narrow Way’s production isn’t very well executed,” says Love, pun probably not intended. “These incredible artists have done such a great job, and we’ve gotten such great feedback about not just the show itself, but the quality of the production.”

With a marked increase in attention and public enthusiasm, helped by strong positive local reactions to recent shows “Jake’s Women” and “Proof” – and now an even more electrifying response to “Assassins” – Love anticipates that next year will be even better.

“I think all of this positive energy will only help us attract a new audience to join those who’ve already found us,” she says, adding, “I am so glad we did this show! It was scary, but seeing people sitting in their seats afterward and talking about it passionately – it’s just so exciting.”

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