NextStop opened their production of Assassins over the weekend and (all the cheesy pun intended) absolutely killed it. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, the musical takes place in a carnival setting, where the men and women in America’s history who have attempted (and some succeeded) to assassinate the President of the United States are gathered. The characters compare stories, examine motives, and find common threads of dissatisfaction with their lives and disappointment in their country.
Mackenzie Newbury plays The Proprietor and opens the show with “Everybody’s Got the Right.” Like a carny, she urges the would-be assassins to take a gun, claiming all of their problems would be solved if they just shoot a President. The Proprietor’s role is usually played by a man, but Newbury’s flirtatious allure is fitting for the part, as an embodiment of the temptations that drive each character to action.
If The Proprietor is temptation, then The Balladeer (John Sygar) would be reason. The Balladeer represents the American Dream that the assassins have lost faith in. Sygar strums his guitar and sings with country boy charm, as he breaks down the story of each attempt on a President’s life, over and over again pointing out the reality that no one’s problems were solved by their crime.
Jay Brock directed the production and, aside from some sound glitches that I have no doubt are already resolved, the show’s technical team did a beautiful job.
Set design, by JD Madsen, created the perfect carnival atmosphere with spinning panels and targets adorned with the muted red, white, and blue flag colors, to capture the antique feel.
Sound Designer Evan Hoffmann (who also serves as NextStop’s Producing Artistic Director) with Lighting Designer Catherine Girardi mastered a stunning effect at the moment of each assassination. Expecting a loud gunshot, their creative display is impressive in its subtlety.
And Music Director, Marc Bryan Lilley, has done an incredible job making Sondheim’s style of intricately layered melodies seem easy with this talented cast. The song “Another National Anthem” is an example of the patience and precision the score demands, and the number is beautifully powerful.
The renowned assassins are Leon Czolgosz (Daniel Westbrook), John Hinkley, Jr. (Mikey Cafarelli), Charles Guiteau (Andrew Adelsberger), Guiseppe Zangara (Brice Guerriere), Samuel Byck (Alex Zavistovich), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Jaclyn Young, Sara Jane Moore (Katie McManus), John Wilkes Booth (Bobby Libby), and Lee Harvey Oswald (John Sygar). Together with several ensemble members, the cast is strong and there’s not a weak link to be found.
There are many intense scenes in the show but one of the most compelling is Westbrook as Czolgosz, a bottle factory worker. When a bottle is accidentally broken, Czolgosz goes on a tirade and talks about the horrible conditions he works in and the men who die or are injured in the making of a single bottle. Westbrook’s fury is frightening and real, and is then echoed in “The Gun Song” where Czolgosz chillingly sings about the lives a gun claims in the factories and mills, and the final life it will claim once it is used.
The show is hardly all death and despair, though. Katie McManus as Sara Jane Moore is a comedy gold mine. Her character is the chuckle needed amid the darkness the show steeps in. But Sara Jane is not without her own depth. McManus finds the perfect balance of humor and tragedy in the part.
NextStop’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a gorgeous piece of theater with an outstanding cast and a message that resonates as much today as ever. Our country’s obsession with fame, illusions of entitlement, ignorance of mental illness, and lax attitudes on gun control are all touched on.
Assassins is a thought-provoking commentary and a warning for what the future holds, based on our culture and the cyclical nature our history keeps taking.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.