‘Assassins’ Review: A Killer Revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Macabre Masterpiece

·5-min read

Director John Doyle’s electrifying staging of “Assassins,” Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterpiece about our national infatuation with fame and our appetite for violence, is a revival to die for — figuratively, of course.

A musical featuring some of the most infamous cutthroats in our nation’s history, “Assassins” was shocking when it premiered Off Broadway in 1990 at Playwrights Horizons, and then again on Broadway in 2004. The show’s exquisitely inventive handiwork showcases more guns than you’d find at a Texas swap meet, from the clumsy .442 Webley revolver that Charles J. Guiteau used to shoot President James Garfield to the secondhand 6.5 caliber Carcano rifle that Lee Harvey Oswald brought to work at the Texas School Book Depository on the day that JFK happened to be visiting Dallas.

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The bigger, painfully timely question posed by this new revival (now playing at Classic Stage Company) is: Are we now so jaded as a nation that this modern classic has lost some of its shock value after 30 years? And the answer is: Nope. Between the musical’s powerful content and Doyle’s inventive presentation, “Assassins” is still a killer show.

Doyle (“Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” “The Color Purple”) is a past master of ensemble showpieces, and this musical plays right to his strengths. The lineup here includes some of our most versatile performers, from Steven Pasquale as a fiery John Wilkes Booth to Ethan Slater as the twitchiest Lee Harvey Oswald imaginable. But plucking out any more players seems unfair to the flawless teamwork… although I just can’t resist the inspired pairing of Judy Kuhn as Ronald Reagan’s foiled assassin Sara Jane Moore and Tavi Gevinson as a spooky Squeaky Fromme. The scene with the two of them bickering over lipstick (“Nights of Ecstasy” by Max Factor) is just too weirdly funny.

The sheer cynicism of the opening number that introduces the nine assassins can take your breath away: So much anger in the insidious music, such profound despair in the fevered lyrics! According to the Proprietor (the formidable Eddie Cooper) of the show’s bizarre carnival world, “Everybody’s got the right to be happy / Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

So far, so good. But the song doesn’t stop there: A free country, it promises us, “means your dreams can come true” — a sentiment too often misconstrued as meaning “your dreams will come true.” That’s the dangerous misinterpretation of the freedom to dream that brings all those angry assassins to the stage — and to life.

Some of these outcasts — like the would-be killer of Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley (a hinky looking Adam Chanler-Berat) — are all too familiar. Others like Charles Guiteau (a raffish fellow, in Will Swenson’s handsome performance), who picked off James Garfield at the Buffalo State Fair, are more esoteric assassins. Each of them believed in the fiction of an American Dream that always comes true.

So, no, our dreams don’t necessarily come true. Life just doesn’t work out that way. But that’s the bogus American Dream we’ve all bought, consumed and digested. It almost seems inevitable that certain everybodies like the fanatics and would-be killers assembled here should feel duped, cheated, deprived and murderously angry. After being denied the entitlements promised by the myth of American exceptionalism that defines us, who wouldn’t pick up a gun?

“Hey, fella, feel like you’re a failure?” tempts the devilish Proprietor. “Feel misunderstood? C’mere and kill a President.” Sure, that’ll heal your wounded soul. And one after another, they step forward to receive their guns, in a collective handout staged as a ceremony in which guns are received with the reverence of a religious communion. As cannily staged by Doyle, this scene really sizzles.

“I want prize! You gimme prize!” demands the would-be anarchist Giuseppe Zangara (a wild-eyed Wesley Taylor), who used that prize to shoot (and miss) President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “All I want for Christmas is my Constitutional right!” declaims Samuel Byck (Andy Grotelueschen, resplendent in a shabby Santa Claus costume), who tried to hijack an airplane with which to assassinate Richard Nixon.

“Aim for what you want a lot / Everybody gets a shot,” as one cynical lyric exhorts losers like John Wilkes Booth (so desperately sincere in Pasquale’s seductive perf), who dreamed of being a hero when he struck down Lincoln. “They say you killed a country, John / Because of bad reviews,” the dispassionate Balladeer (Slater again) taunts him.

“Tell ’em, boy,” our would-be savior exhorts the balladeer, who sings his story in what might be the show’s saddest lyric. “Tell them how the country is not what it was / Where there’s blood on the clover / How the nation can never again / Be the hope that it was.”

Promises made, promises broken: That does seem to be the whole point of this politically piercing and tragically funny musical. We promise the world to our gullible kind, and recoil in horror when some among us take that word as gospel — and feel so aggrieved that they become violent when they fail to win the “prize” that was promised at the sharpshooter booth of this carnival country.

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