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Theater Review: Assassins

By Fred Choi


Composed by Stephen Sondheim

Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos

Starring John Weidman, Sam Byck, Sarah Jane Moore

Boston Lyric Opera, New Lyric Stage

In a genre mostly concerned with flashy choreography, expensive special effects, and saccharin plots and melodies, Stephen Sondheim is one of the few composers who continues to write musicals that treat an adult audience as adults, and challenge them to think and react in an active rather than passive manner. Sondheim, the mastermind behind such ingenious shows as Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, scores an even greater hit with Assassins (libretto by John Weidman), which recently completed its run at the Boston Lyric Theater.

This first-rate production of the 1991 Off-Broadway show made it clear to all who saw it that there is nothing more sublime in all of theater than experiencing Sondheim at his best, in the hands of a skillful director and a superb cast. With the exception of only a handful of weak moments, the performance was absolutely riveting

Only Sondheim and Weidman would even think to tackle the enormous task of turning the complexities surrounding nine assassinations and attempted assassinations of American presidents into a musical. And only Sondheim and Weidman would be able to pull it off such that the result is a stirring and completely fascinating surreal tragicomedy as hilarious as it is chilling. This may seem an unlikely combination, but the juxtaposition mimics real life and works very effectively, making the work all the more unsettling and powerful.

The play opens at a carnival booth, as we watch a proprietor try to persuade passersby to "C'mere and shoot a president." One by one we see the assassins and would-be assassins promised everything they could wish for - fame, fortune, love, everything by which society judges its members - and one by one we see their dreams get spat and trod upon. The first and last of these are the two most famous assassins, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, but the seven other assassins are even more fascinating, among them Leon Czolgosz, who saw McKinley's assassination as the only way to express his fury at a government that allowed millions to slave and die in factories with abominable conditions for only pennies per hour, and "Squeaky" Fromme, who thought that by assassinating Gerald Ford she'd be able to have a trial on national television where Charles Manson, her lover, "would get to be a witness and he'd save the world."

It would have been easy to simply caricature the assassins and pass off their twisted notions of what is right and wrong as complete madness, but instead the authors take a more difficult approach for the audience to accept - that these misfits of society are little different from ourselves. We watch them bicker and laugh, and cry and drink Tab, write books and love letters, and we see ourselves being portrayed. When Sam Byck complains about how his burgers from Burger King are never hot, we laugh and find ourselves unexpectedly relating to him, even sympathizing with him as he tries to explain his reasons for trying to assassinate Richard Nixon. When Sarah Jane Moore practices shooting by using a bucket of KFC as her target, we laugh at the incongruity, made all the more ridiculous by the fact that she looks more like the mother of your best friend from elementary school, rather than a woman plotting to shoot Gerald Ford.

Sondheim and Weidman show us the faces of the faceless assassins, and make their characters completely three-dimensional. We suddenly realize that "good" isn't always good and "bad" isn't always bad; that life consists of a multitude of shades of gray. In coming to this revelation we realize that the American Dream can quickly turn into an American Nightmare, and that although we see and hear "America" on TV and the radios, there is another side to America that rarely gets the spotlight. As Sondheim puts it, "There's another national anthem, folks, for those who never win... We're the other national anthem, folks, the ones who can't get in - to the ball park."

The are many great difficulties in performing Assassins, and the cast, under the direction of Spiro Veloudos, overcomes them all with great skill. The quick changes in mood require perfect timing and superior acting abilities to be convincing, and the ensemble was almost flawless. Even though parts like Moore, Fromme, and Guiteau (who assassinated James Garfield) were the obvious scene-stealers, required to utilize the widest range of emotions, the completely serious roles of Czolgosz, Zangara (who tried to shoot Franklin D. Roosevelt), and Oswald were played just as well. The show's presentation closely followed that of the original production rather than the London production, which is admirable because it gives many a chance to see the authors' original concept of the show.

But even with the stirring plot and wonderful acting and staging, the one thing that stands out in my mind is the music. Sondheim's score is one of his most inventive and engaging, and he completely captures the flavor of American music while expressing it in his own, inimitable style. The show's folk ballads, Sousa-like marches, barbershop quartet, rag, and pop love song are all miniature masterpieces that are so vital to the show, yet work in harmony with, rather than overwhelming, the script. Sondheim's much skill as lyricist is also abundant, with lines to boggle the mind such as, "Why did you do it, Johnny, Throw it all away? Why did you do it, boy, Not just destroy The pride and joy Of Illinois, But all the U.S.A.?"

Even though Assassins opened seven and a half years ago, the story is even more relevant today than it was then. Many in the audience still feel the impact of Kennedy's death, and many of a younger generation have been trying to understand the reason behind the the sudden series of teenage shootings. Sondheim and Weidman's show doesn't glorify assassination by proposing it as a solution to one's problems, but rather shows us that something is dreadfully wrong with a country that has such a long and bloody history of assassins. It is laudable that there are theater groups still willing to take on such controversial material and perform it so well, for this is a play that all Americans should have the opportunity to see.