Assassins

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 18, 2017

The first few bars of Stephen Sondheim musical, "Assassins," borrows from "Hail To The Chief," the official presidential anthem -- a song that is supposed to inspire awe and used to give me goose bumps. Now, it gives me chills for an entirely different and less warm and fuzzy reason. Growing up, that song evoked respect, even for crooks like Richard Nixon, bumbling fools like Gerald Ford and dangerous narrow-minded conservatives like Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Okay, so I didn't personally have much respect for the U.S. presidents I grew up with. Do you blame me? But I didn't want to see them dead.

The office of President of the United States used to be a venerated one. Now it's become a joke. Thinking about our current elected leaders brings about feelings of disgust. And sadness. And anger. I mourn for the death of a once respected country.

So, all of that spewed, your feelings about this show probably will have a lot to do with where you stand on the current political spectrum. Let's hope, like "Sunday in the Park With George" last year, it has Broadway legs.

A few moments into Encores! Off-Center season's stirring, captivating, sometimes uneven concert production of "Assassins" a circus master-of-ceremonies-type character sings, "Come here and kill a president." This line elicited giggles from the audience. And some facial expressions that seemed to say, "Sign me up." Would that have happened a year ago? I don't think so. But these are the times we're living in.

"Assassins," with a provocative book by John Weidman ("Pacific Overtures") was first brought to life in a 1991 Playwrights Horizons production that received mixed reviews. With the dawn of new millennium (and a barely elected George W. Bush in the White House) the time seemed ripe for a revival but 9/11 delayed plans until Roundabout Theater Company produced a well-received, well-conceived Tony-winning production in 2004 starring Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Cerveris.

Encores! has smartly brought it back now, under the strong direction of Anne Kaufman, just in time to deliver a strange and disturbing kind of catharsis for theatergoers and all those who feel soiled by the daily doings of Herr Trump.

(I would be curious to get a Trump supporter's take on the work.)

The show is a clever pastiche-y blend of American musical theater tropes including vaudeville and the still-popular revue. Sondheim's brilliant marriage of music and lyrics is a tribute to irony. Case in point: musically, "Unworthy of Your Love" is a pretty and lilting love song.

But the lyrics are chilling and the situation is downright lunatic (and features two lunatics!) as two stalkers decide to prove their love for Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively, by offing a president. The composer/lyricist was also giving critics who complained that he never wrote traditional love songs the finger.

Weidman's book gathers nine of the most notorious presidential assassins together -- some who succeeded and some who bungled the job -- and tosses them into a not-so-neat, semi-abstract club of sorts. The opening number, "Everybody's Got the Right," introduces most of them and from there the piece delves into the background and motivation of each mostly-disenfranchised assassin (sometimes sketchily), while making a few profound statements about gun-control, social and racial inequality, mental illness, loss of innocence and, imagine, our corrupt leaders.

Kaufman has assembled some of Broadway's greatest (and a few terrific newcomers) to embody these fascinating figures.

Among the most prominent and best is Steven Pasquale as John Wilkes Booth, who is just the right mix of anger, arrogance and assuredness.

The two major female murderers provide the show with most of its comic delights as well as a few bone-chilling moments. Ironically, both Sarah Jane Moore and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme screwed up their assassination attempts on the same president, Gerald Ford, in the most bumbling ways. (Further irony is how Ford himself leaned toward slapstick in real life).

The captivating Victoria Clark plays Moore to wacky perfection, accidentally shooting her dog in one hilarious bit. And scene-stealer Erin Markey gives Squeaky a grounded insanity that works smashingly well. Markey is mesmerizing, often quite daring in her choices that always seem to pay off.

As foolish and misguided as these two initially appear to be, they represent an entire sex that continues to be shit on by a paternal government that desperately fears losing its power (although it's already lost its grip). There's an empathy for both women there now that certainly wasn't a few decades ago.

Other standouts, in a remarkably good cast, is Steven Boyer as Reagan-shooter John Hinckley, Clifton Duncan as one of the Balladeers (why there are two, I have no idea) and the alarmingly good Cory Michael Smith as Lee Harvey Oswald. Smith's one powerful scene still stings and presents an intriguing hypothesis and brings the production to its surreal, Brechtian climax.

For a "concert" version, the show is certainly tight and taut. There are still a few numbers, like "Gun Song" that I can appreciate for their content and style but that I will never be in love with but overall, the show is durable and packs a perceptive punch with lyrics like, "Every now and then the country goes a little wrong" and "How the nation can never again be the hope that it was," resonating like nuclear bombs.

"Assassins" takes the country's past and current temperature and its dangerously feverish, perhaps even near death, to the point where one has to wonder whether there will ever be a "United" States again.

"Assassins" had a strictly limited engagement through July 15 as part of this summer's Encores! Off-Center season at City Center, 131 West 55th Street. For more information, call 212-581-1212 or visit nycitycenter.org

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute