Stephen Sondheim is undoubtedly the greatest living musical theatre composer, and history may judge him to be the greatest to date (though, there’d be a lot of argument on that score). But, in general the musicals where he provided both music and lyrics are more admired than beloved. And, he’s had his share of flops, albeit many of those were admired critically.
Assassins, which is on display through April 28 at Cygnet Theatre, is one of the ones that had a decidedly mixed reception, both by critics and commercially. Even in revised form, it’s a maddening show, despite Sean Murray’s first-rate production.
Because Mr. Sondheim’s work is so revered, directors keep trying to find a key to make his failures into successes. Often, small changes make the difference. For Assassins, director Sam Mendes persuaded Mr. Sondheim to add a song to the show. That addition seems to have been enough to turn its Broadway debut (which starred Neil Patrick Harris) into a success.
Part history lesson, part character study, and more than a little influenced by the critical/cultural movement in European and American academic scholarship, Assassins critiques the American Dream by showing how the drive to become famous by those who weren’t warped the dream in the minds of its assassin-dreamers.
John Weidman’s book starts with arguably the most famous assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Braxton Molinaro). Of all the assassins, Booth turns out to have been the sanest, as he was a Confederate sympathizer who thought that by killing Abraham Lincoln he could rally those troops to resume fighting, even though they had surrendered days earlier. Booth is found and killed, but he becomes the spiritual muse for the assassins who follow.
For the most part, however, these other assassins turn out to be a motley bunch who tend to have similar stories: they are megalomaniacs who are disappointed in their lack of fame and try to achieve the status they desire by engaging in an act that can’t be ignored. In some ways, it’s like having to watch antic after antic by the Kardashian sisters, with no relief in sight.
We get assassins who have been largely forgotten: Charles J. Guiteau (Geno Carr), who shot James Garfield after he was rebuffed in his attempt to be appointed ambassador to France; Leon Czolgosz (Jason Maddy) who shot William McKinley after becoming enamored with the anarchist speeches of Emma Goldman (Sandy Campbell); Guiseppe Zangara (Jaycob Hunter), who shot Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak while aiming at Franklin D. Roosevelt; and Samuel Byck (Manny Fernandes), who highjacked a commercial airliner with the intent of crashing it into the White House and killing Richard Nixon.
Even the more recent would-be assassins, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Melissa Fernandes) and Sara Jane Moore (Melinda Gilb), both of whom shot at Gerald Ford in September 1975, might not be remembered by many.
Like Booth, the assassins we know tend to have the most fascinating tales to tell. John Hinckley, Jr. (Kürt Norby) is on our minds both because Ronald Reagan kept joking about his assassination attempt, as well as because he was obsessed with Jodie Foster, a well-known actress. And then, of course, there is Lee Harvey Oswald, whose assassination of John F. Kennedy ranks high for its national shock value. Mr. Oswald’s story, which comes at the end, is powerful enough that it saves Assassins from the dustbin. But, it’s a long two intermissionless hours between Booth and Oswald.
Besides the assassins, there are a set of bystanders who play secondary roles and serve as a kind of Greek chorus. Andy Collins, as the proprietor of the shooting gallery that serves as the show’s set, plants the idea that shooting a president will make the assassins famous and then hovers about to watch his handiwork. Jacob Caltrider, as the Balladeer, provides singing narration and serves as the optimistic counterpoint to the assassins’ woes, until he suddenly becomes one of them. Bryan Banville, Stewart Calhoun, Mitzi Michaels, and Ms. Campbell round out the bystander corps. [php snippet=1]
Mr. Murray’s production is tightly conceived and executed, even if it doesn’t break much, if any, new ground. The performers sing quite well and do their best to create memorable characters. You’ll have your favorites; mine were Mr. Caltrider (whose manner suggests that of Mr. Harris), Ms. Gilb (who makes Sara Jane Moore more pitiable than crazy), and Mr. Norby (who catches chillingly John Hinckley, Jr.’s mannerisms).
The physical production (including Ryan Grossheim’s set design, Shirley Pierson’s costume design, Chris Rynne’s lighting design, Peter Herman’s wig and makeup designs, Angelica Ynfante’s properties design, Patrick Marion’s musical direction, and David Brannen’s choreography) is entirely up to the standard we’ve come to expect from Cygnet. Assassins isn’t done that often, so if you want to fill this gap in your enjoyment of the Sondheim oeuvre, you won’t be disappointed.
Me, I’ll look forward to Cygnet’s production of Company this summer.