Given the increasingly political divisions engulfing this country, should one really encourage a production of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1990 musical “Assassins” -- a darkly comic vaudeville about the men and women who killed (or try to kill) the president of the United States? As John Doyle’s simply staged and brilliantly cast production at Classic Stage Company proves, the answer is a definite yes.
Far from either a political diatribe or simple morality play, the show is one of musical theater’s most complex works, as it humanizes the many troubled souls who took the life (or tried to) of some of our commanders-in-chief, while also clearly making the case that killing the president ultimately solves nothing. As the balladeer (Ethan Slater in fine voice) tells us early on in “The Ballad of Booth”: “Lots of madmen have had their say, but only for a day.”
Still, Sondheim and Weidman make us understand the varied motives of these madmen (and women) who believed it would “fun to kill a president” -- from the vainglorious John Wilkes Booth (the magnificent and seductive Steven Pasquale), who sees himself as Brutus to Abraham Lincoln’s Julius Caesar, to the unhappy immigrants Leon Cosglosz (a hauntingly convincing Brandon Uranowitz) and Guiseppe Zangara (a scary Wesley Taylor) to the flamboyantly bombastic Charles Guiteau (a dynamic Will Swenson) and lovesick John Hinckley (a suitably pathetic Adam Chanler-Berat).
Most chilling is the authors’ presentation of Lee Harvey Oswald (stunningly portrayed by Slater), who has no intention of killing JFK until talked into it by Booth and company, who see Oswald as the man who will make all of America remember them collectively and individually.
For all the work’s darkness, Weidman and Sondheim also provide genuine opportunities for laughter. They come primarily in the exchanges between Gerald Ford’s two would-be killers, devoted Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (a truly convincing Tavi Gevinson) and bored, scattered housewife Sara Jane Moore (a brilliant Judy Kuhn in a surprisingly hilarious turn), as well as in the scathing monologues of the Santa Claus-suited Samuel Byck (a scathingly funny Andy Grotelusechen), who intended to crash a 747 into Richard Nixon’s White House in 1974.
The authors also don’t let the American people (embodied by a wonderful ensemble led by the stunning Bianca Horn) --- completely off the hook. In “How I Saved Roosevelt,” we impatiently listen to a few self-involved people taking credit for preventing FDR’s death. Conversely, in the stunningly beautiful “Something Just Broke,” – which was added for the show’s London premiere -- there’s real pain in the voices of those who have just learned of JFK’s passing.
Indeed, the only person on stage for whom feel nothing is The Proprietor (an effective Eddie Cooper) who runs the heavenly carnival that provides the show’s setting, and which is brought evocatively to life in Doyle’s simple set. (The excellent costumes are by the great Ann Hould-Ward, though she might consider buying Slater a less tight-fitting t-shirt.)
Given that “all you have to do is pull your little finger” to take a life, we should be grateful that there’s been no attempted assassination on any of our leaders since Ronald Reagan. Sadly, though, one knows instinctively that history is bound to repeat itself -- even if some of us learn the lessons of “Assassins.”
By Brian Scott Lipton
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