Assassins is about people who lived out their dream – but it’s not the dream we ordinarily think of as “The American Dream.” This audacious musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) examines the lives of that small group of people who have killed – or attempted to kill – the American President.
In one song, Charles Guiteau, the man who murdered President James Garfield in 1881, sings of how his action will “Insure my future / My niche in history / And the world will see / That I am not a man to overlook!” The fact that both Garfield and Guiteau are largely forgotten today is one of the show’s many ironies.
Sondheim’s music is wide-ranging, including everything from razzle-dazzle show tunes to strains of folk, gospel and military marches, while his lyrics are ingenious and perceptive. Weidman’s book is in a revue format, giving each of the assassins and would-be assassins a moment in the spotlight. The script sometimes overdoses on dark humor, especially in its relentless mocking of the two women who tried, and failed, to kill President Gerald Ford. (Seeing would-be killers turned into punchlines can make for some uncomfortable moments, especially as the show opened a few days after the Orlando massacre, an event that reminded us that a shooting is not a laughing matter. Program notes from the show’s director and the theater’s artistic director address the tragedy compassionately.)
But for the most part the show is penetrating, with a lot to say about what drove these twisted people to violence. And in the song “Something Just Broke,” Sondheim flips the show’s perspective by depicting ordinary Americans shattered by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s a humane response to a searing tragedy, and it shows the far-reaching repercussions of one deranged action.
Director Tatiana Pandiani has staged a low-key but largely successful production of Assassins. The show contains some excellent performances, including Billy Cohen’s steely John Wilkes Booth, Christopher J. Beard’s hyper-sensitive John Hinckley, and Maeve Brady in a delightfully scatterbrained turn as the hapless Sara Jane Moore. Jake McCready shows off a strong voice as the Proprietor (the show’s master of ceremonies), Esteban Godoy is focused as Guiteau, and David Drew burns with explosive rage as Samuel Byck, who failed in an outlandish plot to kill President Richard Nixon.
But what was Byck’s plot? Well, you won’t learn much about it from Assassins – Weidman’s book doesn’t go into the details. And the printed program for Princeton Summer Theater’s production won’t help anyone who isn’t up on presidential history or hasn’t seen the show before. There’s a list of the actors and the characters they play, but no explanation of who obscure assassins like Guiteau were. There’s not even a song list, which would help newcomers follow the onstage action.
Vince Di Mura leads a four-piece band (keyboard, guitar, bass and violin) from a riser at the rear of the stage. Yet even though the band isn’t particularly loud, the electronic keyboard sometimes drowns out the unamplified singers. The witty, fast-paced lyrics of “How I Saved Roosevelt,” sung by several ensemble members, were nearly impossible to make out. And while Jared Brendon Hopper is an engaging presence as the storytelling Balladeer, his light tenor is often hard to hear over the band.
Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set design is basic – a cinder block wall at the rear of the stage is painted black, and strings of lights across the stage suggest the carnival shooting gallery where the show takes place. Alex Mannix’s lighting is excellent, delineating the scenes well despite the lack of expository scenery. Keating Helfrich provides costumes that convincingly depict two centuries worth of fashion, and Iñaki Baldassarre delivers some clever choreography, even providing one of the killers with his own chorus line.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.
Assassins plays through June 26, 2016 at Princeton Summer Theater, performing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, NJ. For tickets, call (732) 997-0205, or purchase them online.