British director John Doyle was introduced to New York with his quirky Broadway stagings of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company in which the actor/singers also played musical instruments, rather than having an orchestra. Since becoming artistic director of the Classic Stage Company in 2016, he has offered new CSC stagings of Sondheim’s Passion and Pacific Overtures, plus the New York premiere of the third Sondheim/John Weidman collaboration Road Show at The Public Theater in 2008. Now in his last year running CSC, he has staged the second Sondheim-Weidman musical, the 1990 Assassins, in its fourth New York incarnation.
Assassins has always been a thorny property because of its mature subject matter, the stories of nine of the 13 people who assassinated or attempted to assassinate presidents. It is difficult to know how to approach this material: is it a dark comedy, a study in manipulating media coverage, an indictment of American society, or a musical history lesson? As always, Doyle has put his own stamp on the show. The thrust stage (the first New York production of this material in this setup) is painted to resemble the American flag with the red and white stripes the length of the stage and the blue and white stars at the far end.
As has been usual for this show, the cast includes major musical stars, in this case: Adam Chanler-Berat (Next to Normal), Andy Grotelueschen (Tootsie), Judy Kuhn (Fun Home), Ethan Slater (SpongeBob SquarePants), Brandon Uranowitz (An American in Paris), Will Swenson (Hair), and Steven Pasquale (The Bridges of Madison County) who also played the part of John Wilkes Booth in the New York City Center Encores!’ revival of Assassins in 2017. Tavi Gevinson who has previously acted on Broadway in straight plays appears here in her first NY musical. The ensemble (but not the actors) wanders through the story playing musical instruments (guitar, banjo, violin, oboe, and clarinet). This Assassins also includes three musicians (keyboard, bass and drums/percussion) who sit on the balcony level above the playing area.
As always in a John Doyle presentation, the production is professional, polished and accomplished. This time around he has not made changes to the script or the score except to include the climactic song “Something Just Broke” which was not in the original Off Broadway production but was added to the first London version in 1992 and has been used ever since. While the actors give excellent performances, the revival lacks emotion and heart which is strange considering the number of characters who die or who are wounded in the course of the show. It is as though they (and we) are numbed by so much depiction of killing. Is there a way to fix this in a show which repeatedly has its cast shooting at presidents of the United States, in this case only in a fun house setting?
Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., Weidman’s book frames the show as a carnival attraction in which Eddie Cooper’s The Proprietor of a shooting gallery entices various assassins and would-be assassins to play, promising that killing a president will get them first prize. Doyle’s own set includes a circular target on which Steve Channon’s projections segue from the Presidential seal, to historic photos of the presidents, to methods of execution, surrounded by red, white and blue flashing lights (designed by Jane Cox and Tess James). Eventually the show reveals all the reasons that the people have shot at presidents: revenge for ideas of which they disapprove, a search for fame, dissatisfaction with their lives, fighting political injustice, illness, and an attempt to curry favor with a loved one.
First up is Pasquale’s John Wilkes Booth, the Confederate assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. While demonstrating the best singing voice in the cast, Pasquale’s performance which is against type makes him remote and stiff, rather than the flamboyant thespian one imagines him to have been. Wesley Taylor’s Giuseppe Zangara, the attempted assassin of Franklin D. Roosevelt, is one of the disenfranchised who cannot get rid of terrible pains in his stomach after many undertakings. His attempt leads to the witty “How I Saved Roosevelt” sung by five bystanders played by members of the ensemble.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, the eventual attempted assassins of President Gerald Ford, meet up in a public park. Gevinson’s Fromme is a bitter anarchist who wants to bring attention to her love for Charles Manson, while Kuhn’s Moore is a comically scattered middle-age woman who seems to have trouble dealing with her own reality. As the assassin of President William McKinley at a reception at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, Brandon Uranowitz’s angry Leon Czolgosz shoots to avenge all the little people who never had a chance.
We meet Grotelueschen whose comic Samuel Byck, planning to fly a plane into President Richard Nixon’s White House, is sitting on a park bench in his Santa Claus suit recording one of his many messages to the rich and famous, this time to composer Leonard Bernstein. While his lengthy monologue is initially very funny, it seems to go on a bit too long. Chanler-Berat’s John Hinckley, Jr., is an irate and frustrated man who has had an unrequited love for film actress Jodie Foster and hopes to gain her attention. First he is made fun of by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and then The Proprietor mocks him on a microphone, quoting President Ronald Reagan’s sarcastic remarks about his repeatedly missing while shooting at him.
Swenson’s charming and genial Charles Guiteau shoots President James Garfield when the president refuses to make him Ambassador to France when they meet in Washington’s Baltimore & Potomac train station. Swenson has one of the most melodic songs in his “I am Going to the Lordy” on the way to his hanging, performed as a soft shoe number with the ensemble.
The most powerful musical number (performed by the entire cast) is the 11 o’clock number, “Another National Anthem” a tribute to those for whom the American Dream has not been working. This leads to The Balladeer (played by Slater) who has wandered through the show playing a guitar, being transformed into now the depressed Lee Harvey Oswald who is convinced by the ghosts of the other assassins not to commit suicide, but to kill President John F. Kennedy instead. Slater is both meek and restrained as Oswald who is eventually talked into this crime. The ensemble then plays the bystanders who in “Something Just Broke” sing of how their lives were changed by hearing that Kennedy had been shot. Strangely, this song does not land very well and has little effect even though it should be a musical high point. The finale is the startling reprise of “Everybody’s Got a Right to Be Happy” as the assassins reload their guns and fire on the audience.
Also appearing as part of the ensemble, Bianca Horn is an upstanding and commanding presence as anarchist Emma Goldman, more likely to be remembered today for Maureen Stapleton’s Academy Award winning impersonation in the film Reds. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes for the nine assassins include an item in red or blue. The five-member ensemble is distractingly dressed in jumpsuits that are red, white or blue which clash with the historic costumes, but do set them off as separate from the rest of the cast. The sound design of Matt Stine and Sam Kusnetz is fine except when actors have their backs to one of the three sides of the audience and then it is difficult to hear them. This latest version of Assassins is an admirable attempt to stage it somewhat differently than before, but without solving all of the problems inherent in the powerful material.
Assassins (extended through January 29, 2022)
Classic Stage Company
Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 E. 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets or information, visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes