In the midst of another Presidential Election year with gun violence and gun control at the center of everybody’s attention, it seems perfectly appropriate to bring back Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1990 concept musical Assassins to remind everyone what that darkness in the American dream could do. Delivered by Stage 62 with a sensational cast, this time it opens with a strong momentum.
Originally based on the idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, the show tells the story of nine historically recognized men and women who attempted, successfully or not, to assassinate various Presidents of the Unites States. We begin in a fictional setting where all the assassins gather together at a country fair and try their luck with a shooting-gallery game. The Proprietor hands over a gun to each of assassin and as the history starts to unfold, a “target” gets shot down.
Leading the cast is Mr. Stanley Graham who masterfully plays John Wilkes Booth, the first assassin we get to know. Delivering his signature “The Ballad of Booth” death scene with great vocals, Mr. Graham sets the emotional tone for the rest of the show. Through the story Booth also functions as the internal seductive demon of other assassins with a catchphrase, “You should kill the President”, and this series of dramatic build-ups eventually led him to successfully convincing Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger and join the ranks of history in the end. Oswald was played by Mr. Connor Bahr, who also traditionally doubled as the Balladeer for the rest of the show. His transformation into Oswald and on-stage dynamic with Booth in the intense “Scene 16” made it easily one of the best scenes of the night.
But just as the characters of Assassins, every actor in the show earns their prize in the “history” with distinct personalities and strong vocals. Mr. Chad Elder plays Charles Guiteau who dies with a comedic bang. Ms. Kassie Doherty and Ms. Stephanie Ottey portray the assassin duo Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore with a crazy but tender tempo. Mr. Rob James delivers the Santa-Claus-suit-wearing sandwich-eating Samuel Byck with intricate soliloquies that turn into some of the most hilarious and spine-chilling solo scenes. And finally, under the direction of Music Director Mr. Michael Meketa and accompanied beautifully by the Orchestra, every single group number or chorale moment in the show was a spectacular highlight.
Assassins offers a unique space and timeline where we get a rare chance to look into those everyday humans’ minds by going down this journey with them to discover what eventually turned them into assassins, and Mr. Nick Mitchel’s direction offers exactly the type of guidance you need when you are on such a delicate and bumpy road. The transition between each assassination was brilliantly marked with the targets down and the gun fire effect, and the balance between light comedy and dark drama is so well calibrated that all the irony and satire eventually became the part of the narrative sentiment itself.
Designed by Ms. Patty Folmer and Ms. Michelle Nowakowski, the costumes of the show generally brought back some historic flavor while maintaining the contemporary freshness. At the beginning, certain character’s costumes might seem confusing, but in the end you will realize that they all perfectly transcend the character development in a necessary way. Mr. Garth Schafer’s lighting managed to reflect the psychological rise and fall of each assassin while tying everything together with the transformative set by Ms. Lynnetta Miller and Mr. Andy Folmer. And the final film projection during the climax scene designed by Ms. Gina Marie Rush certainly added another layer of honesty to this already too real show.
After the show I had a brief chat with one of the patrons about the show. After I told him that I’m a Sondheim fan but this was my first time seeing a live production of this not-so-often-revived Sondheim show, he said, “I’ve seen this show twenty years ago, it was really funny. Now I see it again and it’s not funny anymore. It’s scary”. And I agree. Isn’t that the irony history is playing on us? What’s the lesson here? In one of Byck’s monologues he complains to Leonard Bernstein that “no one ever listens”. And as each assassin’s story unfolds you will start to see this seems like a common trend–being ignored, being forgotten, being misunderstood… In the program Mr. Mitchell said “Open your ears, eyes, and hearts so fewer people will feel like they are alone in the world, voiceless without violence.” Is ignorance, injustice, and discrimination the ultimate source of crime? Or do we simply just need to really listen? How did we fail those innocent people as a society and turn them into assassins? Will the story in this musical still be this relevant and timeless twenty, fifty years from now? I wonder.
History comes with many different versions. But the truth stays the same. Assassins is one of those truly powerful theatrical moments that you just need to experience it to understand. It’s like how they sing in the show, at the end of the day, “everybody’s got the right to be happy”, only this time, that happiness means you have to look deeply into that darkness, and find that purest beam of light.
“Attention has been paid.”
Assassins runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall until May 22nd. For tickets and more information, click here.
Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Friedman Wagner-Dobler.