“Assassins,” Stephen Sondheim’s controversial musical about presidential assassins and would-be assassins opened last Thursday, February 13, in Dennis. The show is being staged by the Eventide Theatre Company under the direction of Joan McKenzie-Baird with musical direction by Chris Morris.
Ordinarily, I would not review a show as far afield of the Upper Cape as Dennis but “Assassins” is no ordinary show.
First there’s the subject matter—the show begins carnival-barker style with Ari Lew as the Proprietor, cajoling fairgoers to step right up and “Shoot a President” as he sings a rousing and patriotic song about how the flag incites feeling of unity—if only for a minute. With conviction, Mr. Lew hands out guns to the onlookers including: John Wilkes Booth (Beau Jackett), Leon Czolgosz (Fred Carpenter), Sam Byck (Brett Baird), Sara Jane Moore (Holly Hansen), Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme (Sam Hurwitz), John Hinckley Jr. (Terrence Rex Moos), Charles Guiteau (Randy Doyle) and Giuseppe Zangara (Oliver Kuehne).
What—no Lee Harvey Oswald? Hang in there, that comes later.
Moving on quickly from the opening scene, Michael Cameron, as the boyish looking, All-American Balladeer, asks Booth, “Why did you do it, Johnny?” “The Ballad of Booth” continues with Mr. Jackett imploring Mr. Cameron to let the nation know his motives, which start off surprisingly valid but then turn ugly.
Mr. Jackett becomes something of a muse for the other would-be assassins, suggesting that Booth’s actions opened the door for what would follow.
The action jumps back and forth in space and time and takes a variety of liberties with the personal stories of the assassins, most notably pairing up Sara Jane Moore and Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, who both independently tried to assassinate President Ford in 1975.
A “tic-tac-bang” board has images of targeted presidents—Mr. Lew periodically covers each image, either with a “X” for assassinated or an “0” for an attempted assassination.
Disturbing, but also humorous and thought-provoking, the play looks at times when the country has “gone a little wrong,” and suggests that even though “every now and then a madman’s bound to come along,” it “doesn’t stop the story.” The show doesn’t so much portray the characters in a sympathetic light as it examines the various ways someone might be driven to such an extreme. “Angry men don’t write the rules, and guns don’t right the wrongs,” offers the Balladeer.
Songs and monologues offer various motivations for each would-be assassin: fame-seeker Charles Guiteau thought he deserved a position as an ambassador for helping with President Garfield’s election. Leon Czolgosz was driven to anarchy and ultimately assassinated William McKinley because of the divide between the social classes. John Hinkley tried to shoot Ronald Reagan in a misguided attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster. Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme did it for Charles Manson.
One of the more intriguing characters in a lineup of intriguing characters is Sam Byck, an out-of-work tire salesman who really did send cassette tapes to an assortment of celebrities, Leonard Bernstein included, and political figures before dying in 1974 in an attempt to kill President Nixon by hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House. Mr. Baird portrays Byck as a bitter, drunken loudmouth. He is dressed in a Santa suit throughout the play, in reference to an event wherein Byck protested Nixon while wearing a Santa suit.
The show is fast-moving and was performed without an intermission.
Initially opening in 1990 off-Broadway to mixed reviews, the 2004 revival of “Assassins” starring Neil Patrick Harris as the Balladeer won five Tony awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.
Shades of “Into the Woods” could be heard in some of the songs—several of which, despite their subject matter, are pretty catchy. Toward the end of the play I also felt shades of “Pippin” as the assassins circle around a suicidal Oswald, urging him forward and trying to convince him to kill Kennedy rather than himself.
Often, when I interview directors, one of the things I hear is that it’s challenging to find male performers. The cast of “Assassins” includes 12 male performers who were all outstanding. Most notably were Mr. Jackett in his role of John Wilkes Booth who, as song suggests, “brought a country to its knees,” Ari Lew as the sinister Proprietor and Michael Cameron as the baby-faced Balladeer. Special shoutout to Randy Doyle, who imbued his character with the craziest eyes I’ve ever seen.
In addition to the principal characters the show features a talented group of ensemble actors, including 8-year-old Ivan Carpenter.
Sets and costumes are minimal but effective. “Assassins” is most definitely a character-driven play.
“Assassins” is the kind of challenging play that Eventide is committed to staging, said the company’s artistic director, Chris Edwards, at the start of the show, adding, “it asks questions and leaves us wondering.”
In addition to airing a clip of the Zapruder film that depicts the assassination of President Kennedy, the musical contains adult language and is not suitable for children.