The In-Person Off-Broadway Experience: CSC’s Assassins
My Sondheim Week of Appreciation in NYC, Part 3
“Everybody’s got the right to be happy. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.” Sounds about right, especially when sung by a band of characters who are contemplating murder. Well, not murder exactly, we are told. ‘Assassination’ is the more ‘prideful’ word they like or want to hold onto. It makes them feel more special, we are told. ‘Shocking’ might also have been the first word used, particularly when Stephen Sondheim’s infamous masterpiece, Assassins, presented itself for judgment at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway in 1990. It received mainly mixed and negative reviews, and then, fourteen years later, when it opened on Broadway, it received highly favorable notices, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. That’s quite the turn-around I must say. I would have loved to be in that first show, Off-Broadway audience, feeling the response ripple through the crowds as this show, one by one, jumped over all kinds of barriers and ideals for what musicals should be, or could be all about. That would have been an experience, hopefully as good as the one experienced the other week during its revival presentation once again Off-Broadway but this time around at the Classic Stage Company downtown.
Assassins is quite the macabre framework for a somehow absolutely delightful musical. I’m sure it’s not for everyone’s taste, but for this theatre junkie, especially during his Sondheim Week of Appreciation in NYC 2021, it is pure theatrical magic; hilarious, entertaining, and wildly intellectually fascinating, especially in this small electrifying revival currently taking aim under the watchful and artistic eye of director John Doyle (CSC’s Pacific Overtures; The Cradle Will Rock). The man is no newbie to Sondheim, finding simplicity and honesty, alongside artistic majesty inside each of his Broadway productions of Sweeney Todd and Company. Some say he keeps playing with the same deck of cards, but I beg to differ. I walked into that perfectly aligned space, designed simply and strongly by Doyle, ready and willing to watch him reload and fire something fantastic our way. And it wasn’t formulaic, but exact and forever interesting.
Delivering yet again another killer revival of a Sondheim classic, Doyle ushers this particular eclectic group of murders into and onto his painted American flag with a determined agenda of fun and carnival-like adventure. Decked out in fantastically fun costumes designed by Ann Hould-Ward (CSC’s Macbeth), this masterful ensemble assembles in a perfect sharp-shooting serenade style, shining a strong and clear light, courtesy of designers Jane Cox (Broadway’s King Lear) and Tess James (CSC’s The Cradle Will Rock), on each of these talented souls’ strength of voice and character.
The Proprietor, played beautifully by Eddie Cooper (CSC’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ul) leads us in and sets out the stance of this exploration. “Hey, fella, feel like you’re a failure?” “Feel misunderstood? C’mere and kill a President.” It’s quite the intense idea set forth, with one after another of these wildly misguided characters stepping forward to receive their guns in a strange collective handout worthy of a graduation ceremony or religious communion. It draws us in, through utter cynicism and a discomfort that stems from America’s deep and violent fascination with these killing machines. The framework creates a chorus line of would-be assassins trying to lay claim on some sort of fame or acknowledgment, growing up from a frustration with the American ideal that has seemingly passed them by. They parade forward, telling us their tale, asking us to understand or at least see their destructive tendencies. It’s a strongly framed structure, filled to the brim, oddly enough, of great humor and introspection that delivers some of the best and most entertaining performances in town, shooting their strengths at the circle overhead. Even when they miss the bullseye, the intended target of this wisely crafted musical is solid, centered hit.
Leading a segment of the talent parade is Judy Kuhn (Broadway’s Fun Home) as the dim-witted failed assassin Sara Jane Moore, who shines ridiculously bright and funny throughout this 105 minute one act musical. Her performance is energetic and focused in a pathetic and eager to please manner, especially when she showeres us with her kooky charm in the wondrous “Gun Song“. Matched and paired with the equally odd-ball lady killer, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a kooky passionate follower of Charles Manson, Tavi Gevinson (MCC’s Moscow x6) plays her to perfection never misfiring on an opportunity to bring something special and smart to every line. Becoming somewhat iconic when they clumsily attempt to assassinate President Ford in 1975, it turns out, in reality, they were not in it together, but Sondheim’s pairing of these two in John Weidman’s priceless book is as Colonel-Sanders spectacular as a fired-on bucket of fried chicken. John Hinckley, wisely played by the talented Adam Chanler-Berat (Broadway’s Amélie), is more widely known for his attempt to murder President Reagan in 1981. He gets a number of beautifully funny moments, but the one with the fascinating Squeaky, delivering and sparring with Gevinson in the deliciously engaging number, “Unworthy of Your Love” is a one of the many highlights of the show. The two attempt to compare obsessive love: Jodie Foster Vs Manson. And who’s to say who the crazier one is? Or the more talented actor? I just can’t.
Then there is Andy Grotelueschen (Broadway’s Tootsie) as the Santa Clause suit-wearing Samuel Byck, who states with a wild abandonment, “All I want for Christmas is my Constitutional right!” He drives like a maniac, never getting himself close to the act of hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House, in a failed attempt to kill President Nixon. But Grotelueschen 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 high-wired memorable and utterly captivating.
“I want prize! You gimme prize!” This idea of wanting hangs over the heads of these outcasts, pushing them to act out, like Charles Guiteau, played most handsomely and hilariously by Will Swenson (Off-Broadway’s Jerry Springer: The Opera), known for shooting James Garfield at the Buffalo State Fair, His energy and song and dance number is pure electric fun, and Leon Czolgosz, as portrayed dynamically by Brandon Uranowitz (Encores! Off-Center’s Road Show), historically remembered for his assassination attempt on President McKinley in 1901, finds engagement and connection at every turn of the gun barrel. They believed in the boogus American Dream, yet found themselves thrashed down by that same ideal, frustrated, betrayed and angry. Wesley Taylor (Broadway Center Stage’s Tommy) as Guiseppe Zangara who failed in his assassination attempt of President Roosevelt in 1933, wanted that prize most intently, turning his frustration into rage once he discovered the unmentionable truth in that Dream. Each and everyone of these gifted actors find moments upon moments to delivery the goods with appeal and relish.
But it all revolves around John Wilkes Booth, who wanted so desperately to be seen as a national hero, believing that “Everbody gets a shot” and that shot is the violent act of killing a President. Steven Pasquale (LCT’s Junk) embodies that man fully and gorgeously, gifting the stage with a powerful performance that rivels all that stood in those same shoes before. Standing tall, handsome, and strong, both vocally and physically, he easily leads these characters to their infamous end while shedding light on their situations and motives. Shooting sharp and on-target, Pasquale, reprising the role that he most beautifully performed in 2017 at NYCC Encores!, finds theatrical truth in the making of so many ungrounded promises to his trigger-happy gullible crew. Standing strong by his side, guitar in hand, the equally talented Ethan Slater (Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants), portrays both the Balladeer and the most captivating Lee Harvey Oswald around. “They say you killed a country, John / Because of bad reviews,” sings the Slater’s Balladeer, but this production of Assassins has nothing to worry about in that regard. The reviews are strong, and the promises made are not broken by the Classic Stage Company, who finds power once again in Sondheim and in the idea of telling these stories simply, pistol-perfect and delivering them right on target.