Monday, November 29, 2021

Theater: Assassins

Assassins (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: Assassins 
At Classic Stage Company 

Premise: For my first posthumous Stephen Sondheim show, I saw “Assassins,” his 1990 musical about the unique hodgepodge group of people who tried to kill the president of the United States (or succeeded) from John Wilkes Booth (Stephen Pasquale, reprising his role from the Encores staging in 2017) murdering Abraham Lincoln in 1895 to the most recent John Hinckley (Adam Chanler-Berat) attempting to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981. The conceit is a carnival game where each of the assassins are asked to take their shot. The rogue’s gallery includes Charles Guiteau (Will Swenson), who believed James Garfield would make him the Ambassador to France in 1881; Sara Jane Moore (Judy Kuhn) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Tavi Gevinson), who both tried to kill Gerald Ford separately in 1975 but in book writer John Weidman’s hands do it together, and Giuseppe Zangara (Wesley Taylor) whose stomach pains plagued him all his life until he was executed for trying to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. 

My Take: “Assassins” was Sondheim’s follow-up musical after “Into the Woods” so he must have enjoyed the change of pace from fairy tales to murderers. It was his first musical to not open on Broadway for its premiere run. The September 11th terror attacks ended a planned Broadway revival in 2001 then it was rescheduled for 2004 by the Roundabout Theater Company. I was lucky to see the premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 1990 and every major production in New York. Not bad for my least favorite Sondheim musical. My main complaint is that even though the scenes for each of the assassins (and some crazy pairings) are all fine as are the songs, they just do not hold together as a unified vision. I wish they had interwoven Booth (who is obviously the main character) throughout the show instead of just in his powerful scene in the barn after the Lincoln murder, and especially the coup de théātre ending scene in which he plays such a big part. Emotions were high when I saw the show the weekend of Sondheim’s death, and the production by John Doyle was first class, from his signature touch of having the ensemble crew (colorblind casting–hurrah!) playing instruments to the symbolic use of the American flag it was all quite moving. None of the characters in this musical ask the audience to sympathize with them, only to hear their side of the story. We do, but unfortunately almost two hours of no sympathy takes its toll. Big pluses for the audacity of the piece, but the show still doesn’t gel for me. 

VIP: The cast. Oh my, what an embarrassment of riches. The nine main cast members are all excellent, which also includes Brandon Uranowitz, Andy Grotelueschen and a sly Ethan Slater playing the balladeer who narrates some of the stories and stays on the periphery of the others. And of course, the aforementioned ensemble of Eddie Cooper, Brad Giovanine, Whit K. Lee, Rob Morrison, Katrina Yaukey and, especially, Bianca Horn lend invaluable support. If you were ever curious about this show, seeing this cast in this production is probably your best bet.

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