When most people think of Stephen Sondheim musicals, they think of timeless tales and such masterpieces as “West Side Story” and “Follies.” The average person doesn’t expect a Sondheim musical to be about, for instance, a bevy of attempted (and some successful) presidential assassinations, and yet that is the subject matter of “Assassins,” onstage now at Playmakers Repertory Company with book by John Weidman. The 1990 musical explores the motivations and actions of such famed assassins and attempted assassins as John Wilkes Booth (Danny Binstock) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Patrick McHugh), among others.
The play doesn’t offer up the kind of factual exploration one might expect, however. Instead, it takes a farcical and comically dark approach to the topic at hand. The assassins join at a shooting gallery set up to resemble a carnival midway, complete with flashing lights and buzzers that go off when an assassination attempt fails. Acting as midway barker, the proprietor, both comically and eerily portrayed by Ray Dooley, lures the assassins into committing their crazed acts.
Whether the assassins act out of a desire for love, fame, or just out of a demented belief that their actions will somehow solve all their problems and self-doubts, their stories play out one by one through song and brief bits of dialogue. The result is a fast moving, wonderfully uncomfortable show that will leave viewers laughing, feeling bad for laughing, and then doing some serious thinking about our society’s glamorization of violence and its need to always have a “scapegoat” to blame for the problems it encounters.
The entire cast is on-point, thanks not only to its talented members but also to tight direction from Mike Donahue. The ladies in the cast—Julie Fishell and Maren Searle—definitely garner the most applause however. Fishell as Sara Jane Moore and Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the two women who, within days of each other, attempted to kill President Gerald Ford, create a dynamic duo that is often good for laughs. Searle lends her demented character, a Manson devotee, a strange sort of believable innocence, and Fishell milks her character’s comic lines for all they’re worth. Choreography that creates natural, effortless onstage movements and on-point lighting also add to the production value.
Gunshots are the main sound effect, occurring time and time again throughout the show. At first, it seems as if the gunshots will never lose their impact, but as audience members settle into the story, they eventually do become commonplace, a fact that makes a nice statement in and of itself and that beautifully characterizes the piece.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents ASSASSINS at 7:30 p.m. April 8-11, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 12, 2 p.m. April 13, 7:30 p.m. April 15-18, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 19, and 2 p.m. April 20 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15-$45 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), except 15-per-ticket (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances. There are also discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-843-2311, email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.
NEWS RELEASE: https://uncnews.unc.edu/2014/03/18/PlayMakers-presents-sondheims-tony-winning-assassins/.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, and https://twitter.com/playmakersrep.
BLOG: PlayMakers Page to Stage: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: At 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 8th, there will be an All-Access Performances, with sign-language interpretation, audio-described by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh.
NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the creative team after the Wednesday, April 9th, and Sunday, April 13th, performances.
NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 12th. (for more information, click http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption).
NOTE 5: The Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussions after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 19th, and the 2 p.m. Sunday, April 20th performances.
Assassins (1990 Off-Broadway, 1992 West End, and 2004 Broadway musical) http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000136 (Music Theatre International), http://www.sondheim.com/shows/assassins/ (Sondheim.com), http://www.sondheimguide.com/assassins.html (Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=10563 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassins_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).
Study Guide: http://www.mtishowspace.com/action/file/download?file_guid=193862 (Music Theatre International).
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics): http://www.sondheim.org/ (Stephen Sondheim Society), http://www.sondheim.com/ (Sondheim.com), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Sondheim (Wikipedia).
John Weidman (book): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Weidman (Wikipedia).
Mike Donahue (Brooklyn NY director): http://www.mikemdonahue.com/Portfolio.html (official website) and http://playmakersrep.org/performances/embed_artist.aspx?id=a2cd02db-e01c-4a24-8e6e-655c1dfca6bf (PlayMakers Repertory Company bio).
Susie Potter is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer and editor. She is a 2009 graduate of Raleigh’s Meredith College, where she majored in English. She holds graduate degrees in teaching and American literature from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In addition to her work for Triangle Arts and Entertainment, she is an award-winning author of short fiction. Her works have appeared in The Colton Review, Raleigh Quarterly, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Review, and Existere. To read all of Susie Potter’s Triangle Arts and Entertainment articles and reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/susie-q/. To read more of her writings, click http://www.susiepotter.com and http://www.myspace.com/susiepotter.