Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Assassins"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by John Weidman
based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

directed by Janet Neely
musical direction by Michael Kreutz
choreography by Julie Silverman

John Wilkes Booth … Robert Case
Charles Guiteau … Bob De Vivo
Leon Czolgosz … James Tallach
Giuseppe Zangara … Corey Jackson
Samuel Byck … Chris Moleske
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme … Erin Tchoukaleff
Sarah Jane Moore … Jaclyn Campbell
John Hinckley … John Dupuis
Lee Harvey Osward; Ensemble … David Janett
The Balladeer … David Sharrocks
The Proprietor … Ari Vigoda
Emma Goldman; Ensemble … Deb Poppel
Bill Moore … David Mokriski
Ensemble … Kristen Huberdeau
Ensemble … Will Morningstar
Ensemble … Natasha Warloe


Conductor; Keyboard I … Michael Kreutz
Keyboard II … Matt Wulf
Reed I … Kenji Kikuchi; Karen Robbins
Reed II … Jeri Sykes; Bob Druckman
Guitar … Lance Vallis
Percussion … Brian Jermyn

Stephen Sondheim’s musical ASSASSINS brings together nine assassins, successful or otherwise, of American presidents, to tell their sides of their stories. Its original off-Broadway production was not warmly received --- the real-life John Hinckley had shot and wounded President Reagan a decade before and ASSASSINS opened during the Gulf War and an upsurge of patriotism --- but times have changed enough to warrant a second look: a recent Broadway revival of ASSASSINS gathered acclaim and several Tonys and Metro Stage Company is now offering its own production at the Cambridge YMCA. Whether or not you worship the water that Mr. Sondheim walks on I urge you to attend, two-fold, for much of the production is golden and ASSASSINS itself throws further light on the road down which Mr. Sondheim has led the American musical.

ASSASSINS is based on a script idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr. and I quote from his website: “Shortly after grad school, I began work on a musical entitled “Assassins,” originally conceived as a music-theater collage assembled from the words and lives of the individuals who’d tried (with or without success) to kill an American President. I was drawn to this subject by the passionate intensity of the characters and the ways in which their extreme, aberrant behavior could be linked to motives and aspirations which are characteristically American. The piece I wound up writing had both original and historical material in it. The score included substantial amounts of rock and jazz (for energy) as well as pastiches of music from other eras (for irony), and the production incorporated elements of multimedia such as projections, taped narrations and sound collages. It was produced by Theater Express in 1979 and eventually got the attention of Stephen Sondheim, who, with my permission, developed the idea into the musical of the same name which played off-Broadway in 1991.”

I would be curious to see and hear Mr. Gilbert’s version for, despite some entertaining moments, the Sondheim ASSASSINS is already dated in its daring-ness, borrowing CABARET’s Master of Ceremonies (here, Life is a Shooting Gallery in one of the most appalling opening numbers in a musical, ever) and shuffling history around à la E. L. Doctorow with John Wilkes Booth as the Granddaddy of all trigger-pullers. Having written a play about the Lincoln assassination I am familiar enough with Mr. Booth’s history to say that whether he was sane or deranged at the time, the actor believed he was freeing his beloved South from a tyrant --- the country was at war, after all (ironically, Booth killed a man in favor of a peaceful Reconstruction). Mr. Sondheim and his librettist John Weidman resurrect Booth as a gaslight villain who coaxes and taunts others into pulling their respective triggers, despite some having less-than-noble motives (the final scene has all of the assassins, past and future, ganging up on Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963). What I find most offensive about ASSASSINS is not its subject matter but, rather, the way it is offered as if it were a cute but naughty child testing to see how far it can go before it gets its hand slapped (on the contrary: there were cheers throughout the performance I attended) --- and balancing the evening with a moralizing Balladeer is next to no balance at all; the “little people” singing their shock over JFK’s death could have been a moving finale but they are cancelled out by the assassins closing the show in a triumphant line, pointing and firing their guns at the audience. Forty years ago, ASSASSINS would have been a devastating piece of agitprop --- a Great Anti-American Revue --- but now it is mere decadence with its killing of Presidents as just another form of entertainment. Afterwards, I surfed for photographs of President Reagan and James Brady immediately following Mr. Hinckley’s attack and studied them at length: the President’s look of “Why?” after taking a bullet and Mr. Brady sprawled face down on the sidewalk instantly expose ASSASSINS’ mean-spirited cheekiness. Either take on such topics in full, flowing passion or not at all --- at least, not as a musical.

This is one Sondheim musical where the book is better than the score. (The Messrs. Sondheim and Weidman had collaborated earlier on PACIFIC OVERTURES which also had to wait for acceptance --- it also left out a wee thing called World War II.) Mr. Weidman has two bravura monologues for Samuel Byck, who planned to fly a plane into the Nixon White House, and hilarious-creepy encounters between Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore who each had selected President Ford as a shooting target. Aside from a lovely folk-duet between John Hinckley and “Squeaky”, Mr. Sondheim’s score divides itself between pastiches and his own familiar rat-a-tatting, so word-heavy that the Y’s acoustics and the garbled ensembles often render them incomprehensible --- and, as I had recently scribbled about New Musicals, the music does nothing to suggest the emotional content. In all of the Sondheim musicals I have seen, thus far, ASSASSINS shows the most clearly his love-hate for the Golden Age musical: whenever Mr. Sondheim wants to make a satirical point he will reach into the genre’s past but then force its music to its knees; thus, when Charles Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin, alternates between spiritualizing and side-stepping his way up to the gallows, the effect is despairing rather than invigorating --- the American Musical is the one that’s gonna swing…. If you want to see how Something Old can be reconstructed into Something New yet still retain its connective tissue, there’s Virgil Thompson-Gertrude Stein’s FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS or Jerome Moross-John Latouche’s THE GOLDEN APPLE; even such fluff as THE BOYFRIEND, DAMES AT SEA or LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE simultaneously celebrate and tweak their sources. In contrast, Mr. Sondheim’s nods to his predecessors are isolated, specimen-like, and seemingly random as if he decided here a bit of ragtime, there a barbershop quartet, and when in doubt there is always Kurt Weill….what a far cry from his own masterly FOLLIES that, Janus-like, stood and observed from the crossroads of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s musicals!

But the Metro production is something else, altogether. For community theatre it is quite impressive --- despite its razzle-dazzle being limited to eight hand-rotated columns --- and the YMCA’s auditorium with its horseshoe balcony mightily contributes to the old-time atmosphere. Janet Neely and Julie Silverman keep their staging simple and direct rather than underlining the obvious and Michael Kreutz coaxes a marvelous, layered performance from his chamber orchestra that is all the more amazing by its being placed to the audience’s immediate right and not prove deafening.

Boston and its environs are Sondheim country --- when I was in college, there was no such thing as a “Sondheim school” --- so I was not surprised to find many a singer here fulfilling the Master’s demands. Robert Case makes a tall, plumpish Booth with a warm, oratorio sound that is nicely contrasted with the rousing baritone issuing from Bob De Vivo’s adorable, dapper little Guiteau; here’s a find, indeed. Erin Tchoukaleff and Jaclyn Campbell steal much of the evening as “Squeaky” and Sarah, the former from the planet Deadpan and the latter a flower child gone to seed --- Ms. Campbell’s disposal of a dead pet is sicko-comedy at its best. Chris Moleske is properly mangy as Samuel Byck, down to his threadbare Santa outfit --- his rants may become acting class favorites --- and David Mokriski is convincing in his brief role as Sarah’s whining son.

The bad-taste image of one assassin singing away while being fried in the electric chair is about as low as the musical can go (and I’m not forgetting Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies nor Batboy singing to a severed cow’s head); if this is what Mr. Sondheim and his followers have ending up embracing --- the Dark Side --- then I suggest an all-out Beauty-and-the-Beast musical based on a real-life couple. The Beauty is a glamorous film star; the Beast is a family man who works for the government. He is surprised to learn that the Beauty has fallen deeply in love with him, despite his being short, homely and saddled with a club foot. (The Beast grows handsomer in a lengthy dream sequence as they sing and dance their way through various movie lots.) Finally, the Beast’s boss learns of the affair and orders it to end for appearance’s sake. The lovers part, against their will; years later, the Beast is cleaning out his office and finds a photograph of his love. “Now, there’s a beautiful woman,” he says aloud, before ripping it up; within a few weeks he will be dead. There’s all the ingredients for a dynamite show: love, fantasy versus reality, heartbreak --- oh, I forgot to mention: the Beauty was Czech film star Lida Baarova, the Beast was Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and his Boss, of course, was good old Adolph H. Upon the enforced break-up of the affair, the Beast worked out his angst by giving the go-ahead to the production of anti-Semitic films that would help to pave the way to the Final Solution. Could a high-stepping kick-line into the gas chambers be as joyously embraced as a “Springtime for Hitler” or are there limits to outrageousness, after all?

"Assassins" (1 - 9 April)
The Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre, CAMBRIDGE MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide