Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 Off-Broadway, 1992 West End, and 2004 Broadway musical Assassins opened up to a full house Friday night at Raleigh, NC’s Theatre in the Park. The show delves into the psyches of nine successful and would-be presidential assassins, and examines the American character that created them.
Assassins is a dark (very dark) comedy with a carnival-like, time-traveling, trippy feel that’s a lot of fun. And you know what rhymes with fun? Gun! There are a lot of guns in this show, and we should address the .38-caliber elephant in the room: Doing a show where a significant portion of the characters are angry, entitled, white men who feel that the world has cheated them out of something that they deserve hits very close to home in our current political climate; and seeing weak and mentally ill people rely on guns to make themselves feel powerful or to get the attention they crave makes this show an uncomfortable look into our past, because it so very much resembles our present, especially with the most recent murder of schoolchildren still fresh in our hearts. But if it is the purpose of art to communicate ideas, create something of beauty and explore human motivations, then Assassins fires with both barrels!
The play opens with the Proprietor, played by Gerard Williams, dressed as Uncle Sam, looking a bit worse for wear, with his stars and stripes a bit dirty and roughed-up. Williams plays this symbol of “America” with typical American confidence, never acknowledging his tattered visage. He sets up the carnival game and assures the angry wannabe killers that “Everybody’s got the Right (to Be Happy),” and that they can solve all their problems if they just “kill a President,” as he sells each of them a gun.
The show breaks down into a series of fast-paced musical vignettes, each one showing how the killers came to arrive at the point where they decided their only recourse was to kill a president.
Joel Abelson as John Wilkes Booth is as chilling as he is entertaining to watch. He plays Booth with a barely contained rage that simmers just below a surface layer of charm and bon homme that common to narcissistic personalities. After Booth shoots himself to avoid capture, he becomes a kind of tour guide through Hell, as he travels through time, encouraging and inciting the others.
There are no good guys in Assassins; but the Balladeer, played by the charming Tyler Graeper, comes closest, as the optimistic voice of reason whom the assassins hate.
Oliva Fitts and Andrea Amthor Twiss are comedic gold and add a light note to the musical as the tragically lost Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and the hapless Sara Jane Moore, who both failed to assassinate President Gerald Ford within 17 days of each other. Fitts’ portrayal of Squeaky Fromme’s childishness and desperate need to be loved and noticed by the madman Charles Manson is a little bit heartbreaking. Her interactions with John Hinckley Jr., played by David Bankert, were oddly touching, because their downfall was the same psychosis.
Bankert, who plays Hinckley perfectly in all his stalkery creepiness, gave me the most conflicted feelings out of all of them. You have this clearly insane character who picks up a guitar and sings with such a pure voice full of crazy love and longing that it makes you sort of hope he gets the girl, which makes you uncomfortable with all the wrongness of it.
Similarly, when attempted hijacker Samuel Byck, who was intent on killing President Richard Nixon, records his long rambling messages to Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon, he is hysterical. Michael Blanchette has perfect timing and a spot-on accent that makes you laugh and laughing makes you see Byck in a companionable way that is uncomfortable.
When Lee Harvey Oswald, played by the always compelling Ira David Wood IV, sits in the Texas School Book Depository, an unimportant loser with a failed marriage, a menial job, and no respect, destined to die unremembered, you see the logic of the assassins encouraging him to kill President John F. Kennedy and make himself and all of them immortal by association, because they are right: every school kid knows the name Lee Harvey Oswald. Knowing this makes us uncomfortable.
When Oswald points the rifle into the audience, and sweeps the crowd, it is uncomfortable; but, perhaps, this is the whole point of Assassins … to make us confront our past, our present, and our future, because nothing ever changes until people get uncomfortable.
Theatre in the Park’s production of Assassins, directed by David Henderson, plays until March 11th. If you are wondering if it is the right time to go see a musical about guns and political assassinations, it is … it most definitely is.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Brian Howe: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/assassins/Event?oid=11109867.
Theatre in the Park presents ASSASSINS at 3 p.m. Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m. March 1-3, 3 p.m. March 4, 7:30 p.m. March 9 and 10, and 3 p.m. March 11 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $30 ($24 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $20 per person for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or https://theatreinthepark.secure.force.com/ticket#details_a0S41000005eDvMEAU.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or http://theatreinthepark.com/whatson/group-sales.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYbhpm2Lafw.
NOTE: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
Assassins (1990 Off-Broadway, 1992 West End, and 2004 Broadway musical): https://www.mtishows.com/assassins (Music Theatre International), http://www.sondheim.com/shows/assassins/ (Sondheim.com page), http://www.sondheimguide.com/assassins.html (The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide, compiled by Michael H. Hutchins), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/1096 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/assassins-10563 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassins_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Study Guide: https://issuu.com/milwaukeerep/docs/assassins-guide (Milwaukee Repertory Theater).
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics): http://www.sondheim.com/ (Sondheim.com), http://sondheim.org/ (The Stephen Sondheim Society), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Stephen-Sondheim (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/2008 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/stephen-sondheim-12430 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0814227/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Sondheim (Wikipedia).
John Weidman (book): http://masterworksbroadway.com/artist/john-weidman/ (Official Masterworks Broadway Site), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/2387 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/john-weidman-6914 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1014211/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Weidman (Wikipedia).
David Henderson (director): https://www.facebook.com/theatrescot (Facebook page).
Nicole Noel is a former U.S. Army journalist-turned-Technical Knowledge Manager, with a love for the arts. At age seven, she wrote her first story on the wall of her basement after being told the family might have to move: “There once was a girl named Nicole who had a dog named Rat and they lived in this house.” She liked the way that you could capture a moment in a sentence, and still does. These days Nicole lives with her daughter, and a dog named Buffy, in a house in Fuquay-Varina. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.