Review: 'Assassins' at the Yale Repertory Theatre

Tara Kennedy

OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

Stephen Sondheim considers “Assassins” his favorite and most perfect work, and I agree. It was born out of an idea he heard back in 1979 while he was on the board of Musical Theater Lab, an organization that searched out new musicals. A gentleman brought in a work titled “Assassins,” and immediately Sondheim thought it would be a great idea for a musical. Luckily for him and writer, John Weidman (Pacific Overtures, Bounce), Charles Gilbert Jr’s script had nothing to do with presidential assassins, so after a few handshakes agreements, Sondheim and Weidman were free to create their musical, “Assassins,” which premiered off-Broadway in 1990.

For those who don’t know the plot, it is an imagined series of scenes and songs between assassins (and almost-assassins) of the American presidents, with plot devices to move the story along: The Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) and the Proprietor (Austin Durant). All the killers are here, from the ones you probably already know - John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and John Hinckley - to the ones you may not know – Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangara, Sam Byck, Sara Jane Moore, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. If you’ve ever envisioned a meet-up between the attempted assailants of Gerald Ford, then this is the show for you. You don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy this show, but knowing a little more about them will give you extra insight into their characters. No need to read Asia Booth’s book on her brother; Wikipedia should be sufficient to give you a leg up (if you want more on the subject and a fun read, I recommend Sarah Vowell’s book, “Assassination Vacation”).

I’ll get right to the performances. For me, the standout performance was Lauren Molina as Squeaky Fromme. Her portrayal of the Charles Manson acolyte is a complete balance of honesty and humor. Her facial expressions are perfect: watch her when she asks John Hinckley (played with great awkward earnestness by Lucas Dixon) if he can play “Sympathy for the Devil” on his guitar and you’ll see what I mean. She is the first singer I’ve heard who understands that belting the entirety of “Unworthy of Your Love” is not a requirement to convey the passion that Fromme feels for Manson. And I know that Molina is a vocal powerhouse.

I also enjoyed P.J. Griffith’s youthful intensity as Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley. Usually, actors choose to play Czolgosz with a stoic intensity (Terrance Mann played him in the original Off-Broadway production to give you a sense of the gravitas I’m talking about), and it was nice to see an actor successfully portray this character differently. That’s not to say that he wasn’t serious; I believed in his declaration of love for Emma Goldman (portrayed excellently – down to the mixed Russian/NYC accent! – by Liz Wisan).

Richard R. Henry’s Sam Byck (Richard Nixon’s attempted assassin) was spot-on sardonic. Austin Durant as the Proprietor was fantastic as the enabling homicidal carnival barker; his larger-than-life presence added more to this production than I have seen in other versions of “Assassins.”  He guided these lost souls on their destructive journey with a wink to the audience.  Julia Murney was sufficiently scatterbrained and square as Gerald Ford’s almost-assassin.

Stephen DeRosa’s Charles Guiteau (James Garfield’s assassin) was suitably swift, smart, and shifty, and I enjoyed his performance. With the understanding that Guiteau was a definite showman, I still would have liked to have seen a more unhinged Guiteau; they didn’t keep a piece of his brain to study in the Mütter Medical Museum for nothing. I had a similar feeling about Stanley Bahorek’s Giuseppe Zangara. I was impressed by how much Bahorek resembled Zangara, but, like DeRosa’s Guiteau, I didn’t get the sense that this was a desperate, disturbed man. I’ve seen some terrifying portrayals of Zangara and his was not among them.  This may have had something to do with his musical number. Zangara’s part in “How I Saved Roosevelt” is tough, and I got the sense that Bahorek was not comfortable belting out those higher notes, which may be why he wasn’t as frightening as he could have been.

And that was what was missing in this production for me. Save for a few performers, I felt as if the actors were holding back. There were opportunities to unleash these characters, yet it didn’t happen. It started with Robert Lenzi’s John Wilkes Booth. He did a fine job, but he definitely seemed halted.  It is possible that this was a directorial choice by James Bundy. Maybe he directed the actors to be more reserved? If so, I think that does the material a disservice. I am certain that Sondheim and Weidman were not looking to humanize these people; “dreamlike vaudeville,” “burlesque comedy,” and “melodrama” as stage styles do not speak of diffidence. However, one directorial choice that was anything but diffident was the reveal of Lee Harvey Oswald. Having the assassins surround him, with the Proprietor picking him up, strangling him, and then revealing the Balladeer transformed into Oswald was nothing short of genius.

I enjoyed the musical staging choices of David Dorfman, especially in “Ballad of Czolgosz.” It was refreshing to see something different done with that musical number, which usually is the ensemble standing in a variety of directional lines waiting for President McKinley. The creative movement gave more life to the piece with the illusion of crowds waiting to meet the president. The choice to put back “Something Just Broke” is not something I agree with; I believe it disrupts the natural flow of the story and only serves to remind the audience that Kennedy’s assassination indeed was as catastrophic as the assassins foretell Oswald in the scene beforehand. However, the staging choice of dressing the ensemble in black, gray, and white with stark lighting and minimal set was a smart selection, making it an understated number. Courtney Jamison’s beautiful belted solo lines were also a treat.

Unlike other productions of this work I’ve seen, the scenery is very high-tech, designed by Riccardo Hernandez with projection design by Michael Commendatore. There were giant LED boards flanking the stage which would show the actors in extreme close-up or reproductions of ephemera associated with the scene. The upper part of the stage backdrop resembled a mattress: a diamond-quilt pattern with incandescent bulbs where the diamond points would meet. The result of that pattern – at least from where I was sitting – was distorted projected images; I’m not certain if that was intentional. The lower part of the backdrop was two layers of lights that resembled old-fashioned flash photography bulbs – warm glowing bulbs centered in silver discs – which I really liked. It was symbolic of the fleeting fame that these misguided people wished for – even if that wasn’t their goal. The lighting design by Yi Zhao provided additional ambiance and highlighting. But for all of the high-tech in this production, I would have liked to have seen it applied to Guiteau’s hanging; for me, that was highly anti-climactic.

If you are a fan of Sondheim, I definitely recommend seeing the Yale Rep production for its enjoyable performances. It’s just that my darker side prefers a little more derangement with my“Assassins.”

Photo: Austin Durant, left, as The Proprietor and Robert Lenzi as John Wilkes Booth in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Assassins." (Carol Rosegg)