Assassins at Classic Stage Company
Photograph: Courtesy Julieta CervantesAssassins
  • Theater, Musicals
  • Recommended



4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

Theater review by Adam Feldman

John Doyle made his New York reputation with the 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, and since then he has directed four other musicals by Stephen Sondheim, including two as artistic director of Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company. This is his final season at CSC, and as a parting shot he now gives us one more: Assassins, Sondheim and John Weidman’s dark 1990 masterpiece about the rogues’ gallery of losers, obsessives and malcontents who have tried to kill the President of the United States. Doyle has the ammo to get the job done—a star-spangled cast of musical theater pros—but not the aim. As scattershot as this production sometimes seems, however, it hits enough targets to draw blood.

Assassins is mostly structured as a kind of purgatorial revue. In a fairground shooting gallery in limbo, a Proprietor (Eddie Cooper) invites shadowy figures from American history to step up and make a play for the prize: a chance to be heard,  a place in history, whatever it is they think they want. In songs and sketches, these killers and would-be killers—from John Wilkes Booth (Steven Pasquale) to John Hinckley (Adam Chanler-Berat)—interact with one another, plead their demented causes and bemoan their exclusion from the American Dream. “There’s another national anthem playing / Not the one you cheer at the ballpark,” they sing, chillingly. “It’s the other national anthem saying—/ If you want to hear—/ It says, ‘Bullshit!’ / It says, ‘Never!’ / It says, ’Sorry!’ / Loud and clear.” Meanwhile, narration and context is provided by the plucky Balladeer (Ethan Slater), who still believes in the promises of the land.  

Sondheim’s score is dazzlingly witty and well-crafted, matching period musical styles (from 19th-century ballads and Sousa marches to tarantella and 1970s singer-songwriter pop) with lyrics that slash through them. The effect is ironic and disconcerting, but also often painfully emotional in its willingness to go inside these disturbed people’s heads: At its best, the show can make you laugh and then gasp back your breath. Doyle’s constitutional aversion to showmanship and comedy sometimes get in the way of this operation. At times, the blocking literally blocks key moments; more often, it muddles them, as instrumentalists doubling as chorus members—dressed in red, white and blue jumpsuits that may be intended to suggest prison togs—hover or mill about the stage. Musical numbers that should be crystal clear, like the opening sequence or the one that shows the assassination of William McKinley, are needlessly foggy, and moments of trite theatrical symbolism detract from the inteligence of the piece. (Pulling out long red ribbons to symbolize bloodshood was already cheesy when Doyle used it in Sweeney Todd, or for that matter when my counselors did it in summer camp.)

Even so, Assassins remains fascinating. Pasquale, who also played Booth in the Encores! version in 2017, and Brandon Uranowitz, as the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, bring gravitas and depth to their performances. Will Swenson offers welcome comic relief in his manic portrayal of the delusional Charles Guiteau, who killed James Garfield, as does Judy Kuhn as the out-of-her depth Sara Jane Moore, especially in her scenes with fellow would-be Ford assassin and Charles Manson acolyte Squeaky Fromme (Tavi Gevinson). And Andy Grotelueschen—dressed in a Santa suit as the schlubby-grandiose Sam Byck, who tried to fly a plane into Nixon’s White House—scores with a pair of monologues that prefigure the distrust of the government and cultural elites that animates much of the radical populist rhetoric we see today. (“It’s a fact that my unwillingness to compromise my principles and kiss ass like some people I could mention has cost me the so-called good life which others have enjoyed,” he complains in an audiotape he sends to Leonard Bernstein.) The most discomfiting thing about watching Assassins now is the extent to which the isolated mindsets whose dots the musical connects through 120 years of U.S. history have cohered into movements since the show was written. “The country is not what it was,” sings Booth somberly, and many people now would agree. The other national anthem, as the song predicts, is getting louder every year.

Assassins. Classic Stage Company (Off Broadway). Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by John Doyle. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. 

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