In a time in American history where gun control, collusion, corporate taxes, labor issues, immigration, war, and threats of violence dominate the daily news, Assassins feels chillingly relevant, and fresh. With its rich, moving numbers, it offers no answers; it’s more a testimony that we reached today through the actions of citizens suffering under those very institutions or issues eons past.
The year is irrelevant and the location is Somewhere, USA at an old-timey carnival, where The Proprietor (Mackenzie Newbury) gathers a rag-tag group of individuals, arms each with a pistol, and then challenges them to a shootout. Except, these individuals are infamous—given to coming unhinged—and the game is real. It’s called, kill the American President. And all had access to easy-to-use, simple-as-pie weapons, as “The Gun Song”reminds us.
Assassins, Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical, examines the lives and motivation of the nine people who have shot at a Commander-in-Chief. John Wilkes Booth (Bobby Libby), the granddaddy of all, starts the show with a bang, knocking off Abraham Lincoln before rationalizing his actions while sitting injured in a barn from which he never escapes. Enter the Balladeer (John Sygar)—the persona of Americana. A dashing, clean-cut young man wearing a plaid flannel shirt tucked neatly into a pair of jeans whose cuffs skirt the top of work boots. He strums a guitar and suggests that Booth was motivated by bad theatre reviews. Ahem.
Why Booth killed Lincoln matters less than the effect his action had—both in reshaping America’s ascent out of war and opening the flood gates for subsequent assassins: immigrant Guiseppe Zangara (Brice Guerriere), anarchist Leon Czolgosz (Daniel Westbrook), delusional Charles Guiteau (Andrew Adelsberger), unemployed Samuel Byck (Alex Zavistovich), Manson follower Squeaky Fromme (Jaclyn Young), FBI informant Sara Jane Moore (Katie McManus), and former Marine Lee Harvey Oswald. Together, this crew gathers and chats, forming a type of family that bonds over their actions while Booth antagonizes each in small and big ways, pushing Oswald the furthest during the show’s climax in “November 22, 1963.” A day the country has not yet forgotten.
NextStop’s production features stellar acting and a slick set that echoes derangement (I mean, the carnivals of yore have a nascent, inherent creepy ambiance, right?). Every facet of the show is well-crafted and every song filled with robust, musical voices. Libby delivers a slimy, arrogant Booth while Westbrook’s Czolgosz is a truly sympathetic character; here was a man beaten down by hard labor. Sygar’s Balladeer is a charming, folksy guy who drops dollops of humor and optimism into each scene.
But Zavistovich’s Byck got me. A sad, sack of a man in a sooty-Santa suit, recording his ramblings. He speaks of the lies constantly fed to the public by an administration that would shortly stand accused of obstruction of justice and corruption. Byck may have been unhinged; but he wasn’t all wrong.
closes November 12, 2017
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I have one complaint. While Sara Jane Moore is portrayed—to great comic effect by Katie McManus—as a nutty, frumpy mom who cycles through husbands, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and bullets, in reality she seems to have been the most intelligent and articulate of the bunch. John Hinckley, Jr.’s mental illness is well documented. Likewise, Byck, Czolgosz, Guiteau, and Zangara all have Wikipedia pages that show convincing evidence of insanity. None are portrayed as completely sane, but none are played as fools, unlike Moore—who merely hurls bullets at Gerald Ford by hand when in reality she got off a good shot. All the men demand empathy, in a way, putting forth the mistreatment they’ve experienced by an unkind society far more stringently than Moore or Fromme, who “bond” over a mutual acquaintance: Charles Manson.
Fromme followed Manson; Moore did not. They both tried to kill Ford, only a month a part in California, but their paths, motivations, and actions did not cross. This simplification of their attempts—which merge into a single, bumbling farce—trivializes their contributions to the larger story and treatment by society in a decade that ended with the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Perhaps John Weidman’s book for the musical, now almost 30 years old, is showing its age through the archaic way it seems to shrug off the women, especially Moore, who came closer to succeeding than Assassins leads you to believe. That said, McManus is brilliantly funny, especially with Young, and there are nice nods to reality, such as the song “I’m Going to The Lordy,” which is the name of an actual poem Guiteau wrote and recited at the gallows. Adelsberger wears it well in a show where each player is equal parts solo act and ensemble.
Assassins is a musical roadmap to America’s present that kills any nostalgia for a simpler time. And, it’s in good hands at NextStop, which has produced a thoughtful, stylish portrait of troubling times. And troubled minds.
Assassins . Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Assassins is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr. Directed by Jay D. Brock. Featuring Mackenzie Newbury, Daniel Westbrook, Mikey Cafarelli, Andrew Adelsberger, Brice Guerriere, Alex Zavistovich, Jaclyn Young, Katie McManus, Bobby Libby, John Sygar, Megan Adrielle, Jason Hentrich, Madeline Cuddihy, Colton Needles, and Logan Wagner. Production: Marc Bryan Liley, Music Director; Christie Graham, Assistant Director; JD Madsen, Set Designer; Kristina Martin, Costume Designer; Evan Hoffmann, Sound Designer; Jade Brooks-Bartlett, Props Coordinator/ASM; Marilyn Lopes, Costume Apprentice; Quoc Tran, ASM; Jonathan Abolins, Co-Master Electrician; and Maeve Nash, Co-Master Electrician. Stage Managed by Laura Moody. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.