Saturday, July 22, 2017

Assassins - A musical bulls-eye

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The world has long had a morbid fascination with those who try to kill public figures, while at the same time trying to understand what makes them tick. These elements form the building blocks of the 1990 musical Assassins. The show having recently been given a sterling revival as part of the Encores! Off-Center series at New York City Center.

The story begins in carnival shooting gallery. The Proprietor (Ethan Lipton) of the establishment intoning the truism that "everybody's got the right to their dreams", as well as "to be happy." In this case however, said dreams include the taking the life of a U.S. President. Among those trying their luck in this endeavor are John Wilkes Booth (Steven Pasquale), Charles Guiteau (John Ellison Conlee) and Leon Czolgosz (Shuler Hensley). The respective assassins of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. Also present are such would-be killers as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Erin Markey), Sara Jane Moore (Victoria Clark), Giuseppe Zangara (Alex Brightman) and Samuel Byck (Danny Wolohan). Rounding out the group are John Hinckley, Jr. (Steven Boyer) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Cory Michael Smith).

As the story unfolds, the audience gets to see these people reliving the planning, execution (no pun intended) and aftermath of their various endeavors. Some of the more interesting moments occurring, not in the actual act of assassination itself, but in conversations which take place among the group in a sort of otherworldly waiting area. Where they talk about their lives, why they did what they did, or what they plan to do given the chance.

A common sentiment among the different shooters is how they feel wronged by an uncaring society. They having become fixated on the President, whomever it happens to be at the time, as the embodiment of their situation. Therefore, they see killing the Commander-in-Chief as first, a symbolic action to avenge that wrong; and second, as a way to focus the entire country's attention on their plight.

Yet as the show makes clear, all of the assassins portrayed are complete individuals. Each with their own specific reason for their actions. This feeling of individuality - or aloneness as it were - is helped tremendously by the fact that the folks at Encores! were able to assemble a first-rate cast.

Pasquale makes a stirring and magnetic John Wilkes Booth. A fanatical true believer when it comes to the Confederate cause, Booth also serving as the unofficial spokesman for those present. He being the elder statesman of the group.

Elsewhere, Markey and Clark bring the term "flakey" to a whole new level as Fromme and Moore. Two women who attempted to kill President Gerald Ford (Damien Baldet) in 1975. The ladies' actions are so humorous, Moore in particular having continual problems when handling a gun, that their entire endeavor would be completely comical if the underlying intent wasn't so serious. Also combining elements of humor, drama and denial is Conlee, doing an enjoyable turn as the disgruntled office seeker Guiteau. The character turning into an apparent song and dance man as he heads for the gallows.

Particularly effective is Hensley as Leon Czolgosz, a disillusioned member of the lower class who feels, like so many others, that he has been betrayed by the system. The character striking a poignant note of humanity when he chastises Hinckley for accidentally breaking a bottle. Czolgosz pointing out that he is the one of the people who make such bottles. All while working under very dangers conditions, and for the sum of six cents an hour.

As sobering as Czolgosz's plight happens to be, it becomes all the more striking when one realizes how little things have progressed for those who find themselves outside society's mainstream. Czolgosz's anger and loneliness can also be found in the words of Samuel Byck who, in 1974, planned to fly a plane into the White House in order to kill President Nixon. As Byck sets out on his mission, we hear him rage about people being reduced to living in packing crates, and how both Republicans and Democrats keep pledging to fix problems the other side has caused. Yet, when they do get into positions of power, aren't able to make things any better. Situations that, for many, haven't really changed in the more than fifty years since Byck's actions and which now seem more topical than ever.

Also quite good is a sequence featuring Lee Harvey Oswald, and which reveals perhaps the ultimate goal of all those who pull the trigger. The desire, no matter how frustrating or unremarkable their lives have been thus far, to least be remembered for their final act. Though as some find out, they are not always remembered as how they would have liked.

Wisely, other than a few tweaks here and there to allow for the Encores! staging, there were no major changes made to John Weidman's text. One which makes no mention of the current U.S. administration. Though lines about the country going in the wrong direction and about a madman coming along did provoke a large amount of laughter from the audience. The score by Stephen Sondheim is both enjoyable and probing. The opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right” being one of the more ominously ironic numbers in the Sondheim canon. Also quite memorable is the haunting “Something Just Broke”, which shows how most of us remember exactly where we were, and what we were doing, when we heard the news of a president being shot.

Anne Kauffman's direction is very strong, allowing each of the actors to hold their own when their characters take their turn in the spotlight. They all eloquently pleading their cases to the audience, no matter how misguided or deluded they may actually be. The show also avoids the problem of becoming too repetitive in the different sequences, by continually altering the tone of the various assassination attempts. These ranging from fanatical to comic, and from acts of retribution to ones of hopeless desperation. The changes in mood are also helped by Clifton Duncan's efforts as the Balladeer. This character helping to inject some of the lighter elements of the Sondheim score into the tale while the more serious issues are played out around him.

As timely and topical now as when it first appeared, Assassins takes a thoughtful look at those disenfranchised souls who try to make a real difference by upsetting the status quo. A difference at least, in their own minds. Hands-down, this one was a winner. Broadway revival anyone?

Featuring: Ethan Lipton (Proprietor), Shuler Hensley (Leon Czolgosz), Steven Boyer (John Hinckley), John Ellison Conlee (Charles Guiteau), Alex Brightman (Giuseppe Zangara), Danny Wolohan (Samuel Byck), Erin Markey (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Victoria Clark (Sara Jane Moore), Steven Pasquale (John Wilkes Booth), Clinton Duncan (Balladeer), Andrew Durand (David Herold/Ensemble), Pearl Sun (Emma Goldman/Ensemble), Eddie Cooper (James Blaine/Ensemble), Hudson Loverro (Billy/Ensemble), Damian Baldet (President Gerald Ford/Ensemble), Cory Michael Smith (Lee Harvey Oswald), Eryn LeCory (Ensemble).

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman

Assassins is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

Orchestrations by Michael Starobin

Scenic Designer: Donyale Werle
Costume Designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting Designer: Mark Barton
Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Encores! Off-Center Artistic Associate: Sam Pinkleton
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Casting by Carrie Gardner, C.S.A./Stephen Kopel, C.S.A.

Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Music Director and Conductor: Chris Fenwick

Associate Music Director: Greg Jarrett
Assistant Music Director: Josh Clayton

Directed by Anne Kaufman

Presented by New York Center Encores! Off-Center
131 West 55th Street

Closed: July 15, 2017

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