This is one strange musical. There, I said it. So I can understand why so many people vehemently or mildly dislike Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. I truly can, but I have to admit my love of Sondheim’s wit and lyrics, along with his unique musical sensibility always wins me over. He is able to create something out of the oddest idea, that is just so fascinating. Assassins which first was scheduled to make its Broadway debut in September of 2001 had the very worse timing you could possibly imagine. The content was seen as too perplexing in light of the attacks on September 11th, 2001, so the opening was postponed until the spring of 2004, hoping the world would be ready for a show that would explore the numerous assassination attempts on American Presidents.
The timing is still a perplexing affair. After the magnificent but unfairly protested Julius Caesar that graced the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, Assassins resonates on a very different level. The Public Theater envisioned Caesar as a Trump-like buffoon and proceeded to have him assassinated by Brutus for the ‘good of the country’. In the New York City Center’s Encore! Off-Center’s production, there are many a moment when the character tries to sell a similar scenario, with far too many parallels to our modern day situation. At times, it feels dangerous (and I mean that in the best of all possible ways) and hilarious at the same time. I had seen the perfect and slick Roundabout revival back in 2004 starring Michael Cerveris (John Wilkes Booth) and Neil Patrick Harris (as both the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald), and fell in love with the insanity of it all. This time round, it doesn’t seem to click and punch in the same manner. Some characters don’t seem as funny as before, so I’m wondering: Is it Anne Kauffman’s direction of this production? Or is it is because we are hearing this musical at this specific time and place, with that man as the President?
Kauffman’s direction is not as clear and concise as it could be. She manages to move everyone around as they should but never with enough spot on momentum or crispness. Kauffman, so great directing Playwrights Horizons’ A Life and Marjorie Prime, falters in the same unfocused manner she did with Roundabout’s Marvin’s Room. It is an Encores! Off-Centered so I will give it a bit of a pass because of the condensed rehearsal schedule, but I will say that the show seemed to lack a bullseye aim. The microphone stands seemed to get in the way, and didn’t seem to really play much of a purpose, and the staging lacked precision (Choreographer: Lorin Latarro). And even though on Wednesday night there seemed to be numerous sound problems with mics, most seemed to come from the actor’s microphones attached to their person. The overall perspective lacked a formulated drive that would pull all of these carnival-like side show personalities into a clearer focus and into a deeper understanding. Donyale Werle’s set started out on a high note with the spectacular shooting range target tracks and museum-like presentation of weaponry, but lost its stride with the banquettes, tables, and chairs. A bland coffee shop in some sort of purgatory where all the murderous men and women who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate Presidents of the United States is a compelling idea, but the blocking felt crowded and the movements clumsy. I wanted more fun aggressive carnival colors and less grey, to help lead the way out of this absurdist scenario (costumes: Clint Ramos; lighting: Mark Barton; sound; Leon Rothenberg) and become a clearer target.
Although Sondheim wrote some spectacular music and lyrics, reflecting the popular music of the eras depicted in style and manner, the show feels a bit lopsided and disjointed. The orchestra, directed by Chris Fenwick as always, sounds superb, taking Sondheim’s sensational score to mesmerizing levels (orchestrations: Michael Starobin). There are some singularly spectacular moments and magnificent performances throughout this one act musical. Steven Pasquale (The Robber Bridegroom) soars as John Wilkes Booth, with a majestic voice and strong stage presence. He easily captures the stature of the part, and becomes the leader of this troop of slightly delusional creatures. As soon as his voice joins in with the others in the opening number, “Everybody’s Got the Right“, we know he is the center and the core of this glorious musical. A total bulls-eye performance.
It doesn’t hurt that the songs are as spectacular and absurd as I remember. Victoria Clark (Gigi) shines brightly as the dim-witted Sara Jane Moore, especially when adding her kooky charm to the wondrous “Gun Song“. Even when she misfires (with the gun, not her performance), she’s hilarious. The equally odd character, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a passionate follower of Charles Manson, is played to perfection by Erin Markey (A.R.T.’s A Ride on The Irish Cream), never missing an opportunity to bring something special to every line. In Assassins, the two attempt to assassinate President Ford in 1975, and although in reality they were not in cahoots with each other, the pairing of these two in John Weidman’s book is simply priceless. Steven Boyer (Hand to God) as John Hinckley, who attempted to murder President Reagan in 1981, gets a beautifully funny number with Markey, “Unworthly of Your Love”.
The two attempt to compare obsessive love: Jodie Foster Vs Manson. Who’s to say who the crazier one is? But I will say Markey, on a stage of pros, is the stand-out here. Without a lot of stage credits to her name, she owns the part and slays the competition.
Cory Michael Smith (TV’s “Gotham“, Duke Theater’s Cock) does an impressive job with Lee Harvey Oswald, the killer of President Kennedy in 1963. He’s invested and intuitive in the role, inhabiting the complexities with ease. It’s a fascinating bit of theatre history to note that Neil Patrick Harris played this and the Balladeer role. It makes sense, although it seems that the Roundabout production and the 2014 Menier Chocolate Factory London Assassins with Jamie Parker in the dual part, are the only ones to handle it this way. A great way, I would add, as they seem perfect for casting the same actor, and Harris, if I remember correctly was magnificent in both. Smith as Oswald isn’t really given much to do, and only has one chance to join in song with his co-stars, in the opening and the final rendition of “Everybody’s Got the Right“. Beyond that, he just has his one scene to really sink his teeth into, but what a great scene it is.
The Balladeer on the other hand, played by Clifton Duncan (Encores!’s Lost in the Stars), is strong as one of many singing the marvelous song, “Another National Anthem” but is a bit shaky in his vocal capacity when performing the Ballads. He starts out powerfully when he joins Pasquale’s Booth in the exquisite “The Ballad of Booth”, but wavers in his strength and presence with John Ellison Conlee’s Guiteau to sing the Ballad of his story, the murder of President Garfield in 1881. With an assist from the entire cast, he performs the odd but interesting “The Ballad of Czolgosz” quite well, chronicling the assassination attempt on President McKinley in 1901, but is not as solid as one would hope. I hope it was just first performance jitters, and I hear he was much improved the following night. Shuler Hensley (Broadway’s Young Frankenstein) as Leon Czolgosz and Alex Brightman (School of Rock) as Guiseppe Zangara who failed in his assassination attempt of President Roosevelt in
1933 are wasted a bit here. This is one of the curses of being in an Encores! production. Every part, big and small, tends to be filled by someone amazing, so those stars that get the lesser roles end up leaving us wanting more.
But Danny Wolohan (Barrow Street’s The Flick) as the Santa Clause suit-wearing Samuel Byck, who failed in his attempt to hijack an airliner and crash it into the White House in order to kill President Nixon, does the complete opposite of failing here in his hilarious car ride scene to the airport. He isn’t given a musical moment to really shine, but his monologue is memorable and captivating.
Leading us through this ride is the Proprietor, played by the wonderful Ethan Lipton, who I just adored in The Outer Space at Joe’s Pub. In that cabaret style show, Lipton’s “wacky hilarious delivery and wonderful honky tonk sound” shined but here, as somewhat of an impresario, he disappoints, as he doesn’t have more of a chance to shine. He manages to infuse a bit of his quirky charm into this odd and seemingly side-lined part, but the production seems to fail to find a great enough purpose for him. His part feels superfluous. And in some ways this is my main complaint about this production. It’s filled to the rim with talent, as most of the Encores! shows are, but with Assassins, the production fails to hit it’s mark squarely in the center. For a show thrown together in a quick and intense rehearsal process, it’s not surprising that the mark fails just off-center. Although this is Encores! Off-Center, I’m sure that was not the intention. It’s actually pretty incredible what they are able to accomplish in such a short time frame. Maybe with a few more rehearsals and run throughs, this ensemble of ultra-talented performers will find their footing within each other, and come together as the group of misfits that Sondheim so interestingly wants to explore. I have faith that they will.