Regional Reviews: Boston
He is our master of ceremonies, inviting us to enter the clown show of presidential killers and wannabes that make up Assassins, the provocative musical written by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book).
Assassins was first staged Off-Broadway in 1990, just nine years after Ronald Reagan survived a gunshot wound from John Hinckley Jr. Political assassination was certainly an unusual theme for a musical, even for composer Stephen Sondheim, who'd previously chronicled the death of the American dream in shows from Follies to Merrily We Roll Along. But this strange little show, like most of Sondheim's, has endured over the past three decades.
Weidman structures his play like a vaudeville show, with each assassin taking their turn to perform an act or a Sondheim speciality as part of a demented revue. Sondheim's score is deceptively simple on its surface, a pastiche of patriotic songs that turns the wide-open optimism of Americana on its head. Anarchist Leon Czolgosz's assassination of William McKinley, for example, is set to a cheery hoedown. Hinckley and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (who tried, and failed, to kill Gerald Ford) duet on a seventies soft-rock ballad, "Unworthy of Your Love," in which they pledge their respective devotion to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson.
Here at Lyric Stage, director Courtney O'Connor leads an energetic production that keeps the laughs coming–up to the moment a gun goes off. In Sondheim and Weidman's hands, the assassins are (forgive me) easy targets. They are largely two-dimensional buffoons: they forget to load their gun; their stomach is upset; they want more people to buy their book. The authors take a lot of glee in lampooning this cavalcade of America's Most Wanted–to the point that things start to feel too glib.
But look past the caricatures and you can see this show (especially Sondheim's score) trying to understand the seeds in our culture that feed their discontent. The assassins are on the edges of society, disenfranchised, united by a gnawing sense of unease. The motivation to be heard, to make your mark no matter the cost, still rings loud and clear. Today, we'd describe John Hinckley (Jacob Thomas Less), who watched Taxi Driver 16 times and idolized its antihero, as an incel. And Samuel Byck (Phil Tayler), plotting to hijack a commercial plane to kill Richard Nixon, is a conspiracy theorist gone too far: "Who's telling us the truth? Who's lying? Someone's lying." How many more Hinckleys and Bycks are being radicalized today?
"No, the country is not what it was," John Wilkes Booth (Robert St. Laurence) sings in an uncanny lyric that resembles political grievances today. For Booth and the other assassins who succeeded, a balladeer (Dan Prior) joins them with a banjo and some wry commentary cutting them down to size. But even this wholesome balladeer with his folk songs is, in Sondheim's hands, deliberately naive: "Angry men don't write the rules," he sings. (Don't they?) "Hurts a while, but soon the country's back where it belongs." (When?)
O'Connor's production makes smart use of the small Lyric stage, designed by Baron E. Pugh to resemble a wood-planked barn covered in faded red and blue stripes. The assassins interact with the audience, pleading their case directly to us as they rush up and down the aisles, as if seeking some kind of absolution. In the stylized limbo that these characters inhabit, O'Connor makes a smart choice to have the actors mime the use of guns–allowing us to detach from the visual trigger of violence until, eventually, we're forced to face reality. The lighting design, also by Pugh, and sound design by Alex Berg are effective at building tension each time a shot fires.
The cast ranges from fine to excellent. Some rougher edges, including tentative singing here and there and an overly miked band, may resolve as the run continues. Christopher Chew's delectably over-the-top Charles Guiteau is irrepressible as he soft shoes his way to the gallows. Robert St. Laurence is a charismatic Booth with a rich voice and a twinkle in his eye. Shonna Cirone (Sara Jane Moore) and Lisa Kate Joyce (Fromme) make delightful comedic partners, an unlikely pair united in their bizarre attempts to shoot Gerald Ford three weeks apart. Of the ensemble–a quintet of everyday Americans who become witnesses to history–Kristian Espiritu is especially compelling leading the haunting "Something Just Broke": an elegy to each president killed and every citizen shaken.
Best in show goes to Phil Tayler's Byck, who rails against the Nixon administration (and our whole political infrastructure) in two showstopping monologues delivered into a tape recorder, first to Leonard Bernstein and then to Nixon himself. Even without music (other than a few cheeky quotes from Sondheim's own West Side Story), Tayler is riveting as a man at the end of his rope, driven by fear and resentment to the brink.
"Fifty years from now they'll still be arguing about the grassy knoll," an apparition of Booth tells Lee Harvey Oswald, as the young man contemplates his fate. With a proposed new eyewitness account of Kennedy's assassination in the headlines this week, this is one of many prescient moments that gave me goosebumps. Our national obsession with fame, and with those who seek it, has only grown. You may laugh and cheer throughout this fine production of Assassins, but you'll find it's gotten under your skin for days to come.
Assassins runs through October 15, 2023, at Lyric Stage Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit lyricstage.com, call 617-585-5678, or visit the Lyric Stage box office in person.