City Stage welcomes spring with Stephen Sondheim’s light-hearted musical “Assassins.” He wrote the musical with John Weidman’s book about people who have attempted or succeeded in presidential assassinations. It is not a show for those short on irony or a sense of humor.
There isn’t a plot so much as it is a musical revue that looks at the presidential assassins, beginning, naturally, with John Wilkes Booth. Played by Adam Poole, the charisma that Booth exuded works its magic on the other characters onstage and the audience alike. In “The Ballad of Booth,” we get his charm and determination, but it is really Act II’s “November 22, 1963” where we see Poole unleash full force. Part of the genius of this script is that Booth really shines when he interacts with others. Or maybe that is what Poole brings to the role. Both his entrance for the finale, when he and Brendan Carter dance onto the stage, and his duets with the Baladeer (Jason Aycock) are high points that rivet the audience.
Speaking of Aycock as the Balladeer, this production includes the song “Something Just Broke,” which was added for the London production. If ever there was a perfect piece of casting, this is it. Aycock sings the Americana–laced ballads beautifully, while still hitting every joke in them. His transformation into Lee Harvey Oswald is really quite artful, as he embraces the redneck exterior with a tormented true-believer inside.
Far and away, the two performers who capture the audience’s hearts most are Rachel Moser as Squeaky Fromme and Heather Setzler as Sara Jane Moore. Both bring sinister undertones to their characters, but the ridiculousness of their interactions provide a necessary counterbalance, and release the valve of nervousness for the dark, frightening world of desperation that the script explores.
All the assassins are talented and give excellent performances. Part of what makes the show peculiar is that, though the characters interact, this isn’t really one sustained story. It is a revue-style look at the presidential assassins, a role in life that tends to attract the lone wolf—John Wilkes Booth being the exception. To that end, there are parts of the show that feel like the actors are each going their own way, rather than heading in the same direction—which validates the characterization for these roles.
What makes this script so disturbing is the probing of the motivations of each assassin—foregoing the tendency to paint them as just monsters. If anything the desperation, the frustration, and the driving madness that pushes these historical figures over the edge is the real core. Whether it is Sam Byck (Christopher Rickert) crazed to the point of personal dissolution with the breakdown of the economic and political system, or John Hinckley (Patrick Basquill) convinced that Jodi Foster would finally love him in return if he could kill Reagan, this aspect prevails.
Basquill’s depiction of the personal obsession is a difficult thing to portray in a musical setting, because he must really create a person who is not interested in anything outside of his sole focus for living. It’s a delicate tightrope act, and he manages to do it admirably—even making Hinckley slightly sympathetic.
Leon Czolgosz (Brendan Carter) brings us possibly the only successful assassin driven by demons that compromised him from the outside, not just an interior monologue of delusion—again, with Booth being the exception. His physical anger and torment frightens. It precedes him onstage and hangs about him like a dark cloud.
Dallas Lafon, a local well-known lighting designer, makes his much-heralded directorial debut. As would be expected from one who has spent most of his adult life working with stage design, the show visually stuns. Terry Collins’ set recreated Lula’s Pub, with stairs to generate a second level for a functional hanging scene. Perhaps the adaptation of the seal on the oval office rug that is affixed center stage is the crowning touch. Aaron Willings designed carnival-style lighting, including strings of ‘50s outdoor lights hanging across the audience. These components combine to communicate the idea of spinning the wheel of fortune, a strong theme in this work. Selina Harvey’s costumes are, as always, excellent. She hits every time period from the 1860s to the 1980s with precision and with the ensemble beautifully clothed in subtle cues for the audience. Pay careful attention to see more than first meets the eye.
Musically, it’s a show that is bound for success: Sondheim wrote the score and Chiaki Ito is the musical director. How can that combination not succeed? Ito’s band really shines with a score that moves through American musical history. “The Ballad of Booth” is steeped in Civil War era ballads, while “Unworthy of Your Love” embraces the mid-’70s love songs, a la Olivia Newton John. It fascinates with a challenging set list, but the band rises to the occasion and produces an evening of sound that would make Sondheim proud.
“Assassins” is not a show for everyone. Its humor is dark and unsettling. In addition, the jarring sound of a blank pistol is used throughout. However, for people who like American history, psychology and phenomenal music—this is sure to be an interesting night.
City Stage • 21 N. Front St.
Thurs. – Sat., April 25th-27th, May 2nd-4th, 8 p.m.