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City Center, NYC, July 14, 2017

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Photo: Joan Marcus

The Encores! Off-Center 2017 production of Stephen Sondheim/ John Weidman’s surreal and all-too-real musical Assassins at New York City Center, resounds with relevance. Directed by Anne Kauffman, the production is piercing with irony, horror, and relevance.

In 1990, as Assassins premiered Off-Broadway, it was too timely for comfort since we were about to enter the first Gulf War. A Broadway opening was scheduled for 2001, but the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center brought that to a halt. It was 2004 when Roundabout Theatre Company succeeded in mounting Assassins in Studio 54. Today, in a country sharply divided, the Encores! show of nine brooding misfits who decide that solutions lie in assassinating presidents, is boosted by public emphasis on mental illness, drug addiction, and America’s love affair with guns and their infinite varieties. 

Without an intermission and occasional scripts in hand, Weidman’s book is a potpourri of gloomy, sick, and angry loners interacting with each other and telling their stories of a lost American Dream. Opening in a carnival shooting gallery, a hawker (Ethan Lipton) spots his likely marks and offers a gun, singing, “Hey, fella, feel misunderstood?

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/C’mere and kill a President.” Stepping up are Giuseppe Zangara, Leon Czolgosz, and a placid-faced John Hinckley, choosing their guns and lining up to shoot the paper targets of U.S. Presidents, aching for acknowledgement of their disenfranchisement, pain, and lunacy. Sondheim backs the scene with the sideshow feel-good musical craziness of the would-be killers singing “Everybody’s Got the Right (to Be Happy),” inspired by their pioneer, John Wilkes Booth.

Stephen Pasquale conveys a forceful, self-confident Booth, garbed in black, and killing Lincoln, whom he called a tyrant.  However, in “The Ballad of Booth,” a guitar-strumming balladeer (Clifton Duncan) comments that the killer’s other reasons might be booze, a failing voice, jealousy of his brother, or just bad reviews. With irony and a touch of humor, Duncan meanders in and out of the show, narrating and easing the way into the next vignette. During this divisive summer of Trump, the audience, clued in to current politics, applauds the balladeer’s lyric, “Every now and then, the country goes a little wrong/Every now and then, a madman’s bound to come along.”

Pasquale and Duncan are compelling vocalists. Also notable is Shuler Hensley playing an intensely discontented factory worker, Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley as “an enemy of the people.” Zangara (Alex Brightman), tormented by stomach pains, tries to shoot F.D.R., but kills Chicago’s Mayor Cermak instead. “How I Saved Roosevelt,” reflects the reactions of five bystanders. John Ellison Conlee as Charles Guiteau joins the balladeer with “The Ballad of Guiteau,” proclaiming, “I Am Going to the Lordy,” a vaudevillian, cake-walking sequence to his execution for the murder of James A. Garfield. Thumbs up, big smile, he dies confident he will finally be renowned for his various accomplishments.

Playing John Hinckley, who shoots Ronald Reagan, Steven Boyer looks like milk-toast gone sour, yet has a darkly comic moment joining Erin Markey’s Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme in “Unworthy of Your Love,” dreaming of Jodi Foster as Squeaky moons over Charles Manson. In another spaced-out comedic segment, Markey befriends befuddled housewife Sara Jane Moore, played by Victoria Clark, who plans to kill Gerald Ford, but her spilled bullets foil the plot.

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Danny Wolohan as Sam Byck, dressed in a bedraggled Santa Claus costume, wanders through the show, delivering crazed advice to Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon, as he plans to fly his plane into the White House and kill the President.   

The show comes together at the Texas School Book Depository where Booth and the other assassins face Lee Harvey Oswald (Cory Michael Smith) and urge him to shoot John F. Kennedy.  “All your life you’ve wanted to be part of something, Lee/You’re finally going to get your wish.” He will make all of them important. Attention must be paid. Oswald shoots.

People in their homes, farms, and streets remember what they were doing when they heard about JFK’s murder. “Something Just Broke,” a song added later to the show, rounds out Sondheim’s accessible, melodic score with spirituals, pop rock, marches and folk tunes, sounds of the times spanning just over a century. An onstage orchestra is led by Musical Director/conductor Chris Fenwick. Settings by Donyale Werle are starkly effective, dramatized by Mark Barton’s lighting. Clint Ramos has his eye on just the right costumes for the various eras, recalling the image of Oswald in his white tee shirt and Squeaky Fromme, with her hippie late ’60s look, as Sara Jane wears a pastel pants suit. 

A reprise of “Everybody’s Got the Right” features the cast, pointing their weapons for one last shot. A chilling accent on gun violence is added when a little boy (Hudson Loverro) runs on stage, aiming a toy gun. For this play that continues to speak to us, a four-day run is far too short.   

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.