There are so many weirdly gleeful moments stuffed in Assassins, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s darkly comic and brilliant musical vaudeville exposing the ailing heart of American political culture.
One of the most gripping is when John Wilkes Booth (Vincent Kempski) passionately borrows from the example of Willy Loman’s ignominious end in Death of a Salesman in order to move an apathetic Lee Harvey Oswald (Sam Ludwig) to murder the president and propel the ultimate act of violence against the state into the television age and the next century.
“Attention must be paid,” Kempski intones in a furiously expressive performance as president Abraham Lincoln’s killer. “I have seen the future, Lee. And you are in it,” he continues.
“With you we’re a force of history,” adds mousy John Hinckley (Evan Casey), a future admirer of Oswald and shooter of president Ronald Reagan. There are many more of these pairings and groupings of infamous historical figures in surprisingly funny pop-psychology interactions from across the ages and just-as surprising scenes of incisive social commentary.
Essentially Assassins is a dissertation on the motivations behind acts of violence meant to be statements—in this case a motley collection of would-be and successful murderers of U.S. presidents – but the formula holds true for the much longer list of disaffected, disillusioned and disturbed people who’ve expressed their grievances by shooting into crowds of strangers at schools, shopping malls, concerts and other public places.
Assassins at Signature Theatre closes September 29, 2019. Details and tickets
I’m loath to write that the Signature Theatre production is “timely,” chiefly because it’s one of the most overused clichés put forth by theater critics and playhouse marketers alike, but it’s not hard to imagine the themes of the show as a resonant mirror of our particularly distrustful body politic and distressed society at large.
Assassins opens in a macabre, metaphysical shooting gallery representing a dark corner of the national psyche, but director Eric Schaeffer and scenic designer James Kronzer decide to throw off the carnival setting very quickly (where other productions pump it up) in favor of a stripped down ruin of a set complete with an inspired local touch—the derelict remains of the presidential box from Ford’s Theater. The sensation of being in an otherworldly realm is further suggested by a smokiness in the air upon entering the darkened theater.
The assassins of the show wander into the gallery, drawn to a barker (Kurt Boehm) selling handguns at bargain prices. In addition to Booth and Hinkley, the group is rounded out by woebegone Leon Czolgosz (Lawrence Redmond), a former steel worker and excitable leftist who shot President William McKinley for the sake of the common man; Charles Guiteau (Bobby Smith in a marvelous delight of a performance), a goading narcissist and gadfly who killed President James Garfield; Giuseppe Zangara (Ian McEuen), a poor sap afflicted with abdominal pains who tried to assassinate president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt but killed the mayor of Chicago instead; Samuel Byck (Christopher Bloch in a standout performance), a deranged crackpot who intended to crash an airplane into the Nixon White House; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Rachel Zampelli, who shines as the daffy, hippie criminal), of Charles Manson fame who may or may not have made a serious attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life in order to call attention to environmental activism; and Sara Jane Moore (Tracy Lynn Olivera in a hilarious, if inaccurate portrayal—my DCTS colleague makes a well-made case about the role as written here), a woman who became fascinated with “revolutionary politics” in middle age and took a potshot at Ford that narrowly missed him 17 days after Fromme’s attempt.
Most of the ensemble perform the musical’s opening number and thesis statement “Everybody’s Got the Right,” a perverse interpretation of the American Dream and its promise of personal freedoms. “Rich man, poor man…black or white…pick your apple…take a bite…everybody’s got the right…to their dreams,” the cast sing, vindicating the urge to relieve their disappointments with violence.
President Lincoln’s announced arrival offstage cues Booth to exhort “Excuse me!” in a comic exit and we’re off on an irrepressibly jaunty revue of American history and the nation’s musical songbook (each character presents their personal muddle of motivations and delusions in song in the style of the period).
We’re transported next in “The Ballad of Booth” to the barn in which the South’s avenging angel will die and introduced to the Balladeer (Ludwig, doing double duty), in a master of ceremonies role. A simple-minded but interesting vehicle in which to personify the myths of Americana, Ludwig portrays the Balladeer as an innocent who argues in a folksy sing-song manner that Booth was the first in a long line of disturbed individuals who target political leaders for assassination based on personal failures, dismissing any notion of a deeper cancer in the culture itself.
“Angry men…don’t write the rules…and guns don’t right the wrongs…hurts a while…but soon the country’s back where it belongs,” he croons with a smile.
When confronted repeatedly with the likes of Czolgosz and Guiteau, the Balladeer sings that “Some men have everything…and some have none…but that’s just fine…In the USA…you can work your way…to the head of the line,” and “You can be what you choose…from a mailman to a president…The delivery boy’s on Wall Street…and the usherette’s a rock star.”
In addition to spreading the gospel of rags-to-riches triumphalism, the singsong conscience of America also lets the assembled misfits and aggrieved know that their grand action “didn’t mean a nickel…you just shed a little blood…yes, you made a little moment…and you stirred a little mud…and it didn’t help the workers…and it didn’t heal the country…and it didn’t make them listen.”
The assassins reply in “Another National Anthem” that all the people who feel they’ve been cheated of the prize they were promised will react to another anthem and its words “If you can’t do what you want to…then you do the things you can.”
The question of who’s right—in this show anyway—is established when the Balladeer finds himself transfigured into a lonely man reaching for meaning on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
The musical’s driving theme—blind faith in the optimism of the country as a “shining city upon a hill” is dangerous—is conveyed through a fluidly directed series of semi-satirical vignettes and performed by a terrific cast who in most cases find the right notes of anger, humor and pathos in what are essentially caricatures.
Crossing the barriers of time and space, the dispossessed sing as a chorus, share incongruous duets and taunt one another, accompanied by musical director Jon Kalbfleisch and an 8-piece orchestra.
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Kempski is a strong pack leader as the American pioneer assassin Booth, impassioned in song while keeping to the character of the refined Southern gentleman.
Smith buzzes around the set as Guiteau, armed with a twinkle in the eye and a dangerous, off-kilter sensibility, offering career advice to the other malcontents and generally enlivening every scene he’s in. His nutty blitheness adds a great deal of fun to his gallows scene “The Ballad of Guiteau” and “The Gun Song,” a number sung with Kempski, Redmond and Olivera, about the ease with which “just a single little finger…can change the world.”
Zampelli shares much of her stage time with Olivera in silly, near-slapstick scenes as president Ford’s bumbling would-be killers and joins with Casey in a tender ballad (“Unworthy of Your Love”) to undeserving love for Charlie Manson and Jodie Foster, respectively.
A real highlight is watching Bloch vividly perform a couple of Byck’s scathing monologues rebuking politicians’ failed promises. Dressed as a grubby skid row Santa Claus and channeling an unhinged George Carlin, the actor spits and splatters his way through one of the most cogent explanations of our national political misery I’ve heard.
Here’s just a bit: “The Democrat says he’ll fix everything the Republicans fucked up. The Republican says he’ll fix everything the Democrats fucked up. Who’s tellin’ us the truth? Who’s lyin’? Someone’s lyin’—who? We read, we guess, we argue, but deep down we know that we don’t know. How can we? Oil embargos, megatons, holes in the ozone—who can understand this crap?”
Assassins. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Featuring Christopher Bloch, Kurt Boehm, Evan Casey, Vincent Kempski, Sam Ludwig, Ian McEuen, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Lawrence Redmond, Bobby Smith, Rachel Zampelli, Jimmy Mavrikes, Christopher Mueller, Nova Y. Payton, Christopher Michael Richardson, Maria Rizzo and Jack St. Pierre. Scenic design by James Kronzer. Lighting design by Chris Lee. Costume design by Kathleen Geldard. Sound design by Ryan Hickey. Wig design by Alison Samantha Johnson & Austin Blake Conlee. Stage manager: Kerry Epstein. Produced by Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.