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Theatre in Review: Assassins (Classic Stage Company)

Andy Grotelueschen. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The good news for the theatre is the bad news for us: Assassins is back, as bilious and brilliant as ever, offering its uncanny funhouse-mirror reflection of America at its most cankerous and paranoid. A musical dismissed by the New York Times in 1990 as "slender and sketchy" now seems to reach into the dark heart of a society that continues to be roiled by frustration, fury, and a cultlike devotion to the irrational. John Doyle's production has its weaknesses, but a shortage of stunning performances is not one of them. Prepare to be shaken.

As you probably know, playwright John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim have imagined a kind of limbo where American history's presidential assassins, successful or not, can congregate, fulminate, kibitz, and egg each other on. It's a bleak, blackly comic carnival of the damned, a group portrait of violent losers seeking redress for an American dream that, to them, is a game of three-card monte. It's also a Sondheim tour de force, showcasing his mastery of various pop music styles. This isn't pastiche for its own sake or in pursuit of satiric points; it's a strategy for getting inside tormented souls.

This madhouse is brought to life by an A-team of musical theatre talents, beginning with Steven Pasquale, whose brings so much dignity and stature to the role of John Wilkes Booth that you may not immediately grasp his racist derangement. ("The country is not what it was,' he repeatedly asserts in the gorgeous, unsettling, "The Ballad of Booth," the first of several frisson-inducing moments that seem to comment on today's politics.) Brandon Uranowitz brings a tightly coiled passion to Leon Czolgosz, anarchist and worshipper of Emma Goldman, who believes he can usher in a world of social justice by shooting James Garfield. He takes the lead on "Gun Song," which features the score's most haunting vocal arrangement. Will Swenson turns the deluded Charles Guiteau -- would-be self-help author, aspiring ambassador to France, and William McKinley's killer -- into a nervous breakdown in progress, praising the Lord as he cakewalks to his execution.

Adam Chanler-Berat and Tavi Gevinson, as John Hinckley and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme respectively, team up for "Unworthy of Your Love," addressed to their idols: Jodie Foster (him) and Charles Manson (her). Yoking lyrics filled with self-abasement and rage to a melody that recalls Anne Murray or The Carpenters, it is easily one of the score's most disturbing numbers. Wesley Taylor, roaring from the pain in his gut as Giuseppe Zangara (who took a shot at Franklin Roosevelt) and Ethan Slater, as a balladeer who morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald, also make major contributions. Two of the strongest performers have very little to sing. Judy Kuhn is a riot as airheaded Sara Jane Moore -- like Fromme, one of Gerald Ford's inept attackers. ("I did it so my friends would know where I was coming from.") As the forgotten Samuel Byck, who plotted to hijack a 747 and drop it on the Nixon White House, Andy Grotelueschen turns his lengthy monologue into a cracked aria of grievance, raging into cassette tapes addressed to Leonard Bernstein, Jonas Salk, and other celebrities.

If the production benefits from so many starry turns, it falls a little short in the ensemble numbers, partly because of Doyle's direction and partly because the sound design by Matt Stine and Sam Kusnetz is not all that it might be. The opening number, "Everybody's Got the Right" is muddily staged and a bit hard to hear. (The too-casual delivery of Eddie Cooper, as the Proprietor, a kind of emcee, is a factor here.) "How I Saved Roosevelt," delivered by a bunch of onlookers trying to insert themselves into the historical record, is staged much too busily, causing the intricately structured lyrics to get lost in the shuffle. Happily, these issues are resolved by the time we get to "Another National Anthem," a communal venting that ushers in the play's climax, in which everyone converges on the Texas Book Depository just before John F. Kennedy's motorcade passes by.

Doyle, who designs his own sets, takes a typically austere approach here, featuring a thrust stage painted with the US flag and an upstage wall decorated with red, white, and blue light bulbs. The lighting, by Jane Cox and Tess James, reframe the stages for each scene, adding star-shaped gobos on the deck and using chases to create the effect of a car driving through traffic. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes rang from Booth's black tailcoat to Moore's all-polyester pantsuit, along with Fromme's elfin hippie look and Byck's well-used Santa suit. The sound designers also provide several vivid effects, including (of course) gunshots, smashing glass, and a Jumbo Jet flying overhead. Steve Channon's projections include portraits of the presidents, a shooting target, a clip from the Zapruder film (showing a panicked Jackie Kennedy crawling across the top of the Presidential limo), and, causing a shiver, a shot of the January 6 Capitol riot.

That last image underscores the continuing relevance of Assassins for calling out the nihilism that lurks behind the idea of America as the land of opportunity. As Slater notes in "Another National Anthem," "There are those who love regretting/There are those who like extremes/There are those who thrive on chaos and despair." Sound familiar? The power of this surreal musical wasn't fully appreciated in its 1990 debut; a subsequent Broadway production, scheduled to open late 2001, was postponed for several years following the events of 9/11. If anything, subsequent events have only added to its sting; that's something to think about. --David Barbour

(15 November 2021)

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