Assassins Reviewed

Somewhere in heaven or hell a group of young misunderstood men and women are rejoicing that a revival of Assassins has come back to Broadway at Studio 54. All they have ever wanted was for attention to be paid. Everywhere people are talking about them. Every time one off their names is rolled of someone’s lips, they get a buzz of energy. That is happening a lot with this production of Assassins.

Hit The Prez Win A Prize!

The biggest criticism I have heard about this show is “How could the act of assassinating a president be condoned? With lines like, “Hit The Prez, Win A Prize,” how could anyone think other wise, right? Well no, I did not see one aspect of celebration in this show, just questions. As if that’s all we can do is ask the questions: What would make anyone want to kill the president?  Can that even be answered? Besides, I can’t see anyone wanting to be an assassin after seeing this show because the characters essentially fail to achieve their goal – to attain fame.

The Assassins come from all walks of life, all ranges of decades. John Wilkes Booth played by Michael Cerveris, was the most well known actor of his time, but shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln in the head. Did he do it because he received a bad review? Charles Guiteau, portrayed brilliantly by Denis O’Hare, and whom I saw as the ultimate optimist, was a failed editor who wrote an incomprehensible campaign speech for President James Garfield, for which he felt was responsible for him being elected. So for a reward he wanted to be either the Ambassador to Austria or Head of the U.S consulate in Paris. When he was refused he shot Garfield in the back. Leon Czolgosz, played by James Barbour, was an immigrant from Poland who was frustrated by William McKinley’s lack of sympathy for the working people, a group to which he belonged. After a brief meeting with Emma Goldman, he decided McKinley needed to be killed. After he shot him he said. “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I done my duty.” He was electrocuted, then his body destroyed by Sulfuric acid. Giuseppe Zangara, who was barely five feet tall is played by Jeffrey Kuhn. He suffered from stomach pains that he blamed on the fact that he was forced to work at age 6, so when he decided to try an assassinate Franklin Roosevelt he needed to stand on a chair. While aiming, the chair was bumped and he shot and killed Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago instead.

Samuel Byck, played by the ever hilarious Mario Cantone, was a unemployed tire salesman who sent long rambling tape recordings to celebrities such as Jonas Salk and Leonard Bernstein. He picketed the White House in a Santa Claus suit and attempted to highjack an airliner and crash it into the White House to kill Richard Nixon. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, played by Mary Catherine Garrison, was a disciple of Charles Manson. Believing Manson was the Son of God, she thought if she assassinated Gerald Ford, Manson would be called as a witness in her trial and be able to preach his message to the world. Sara Jane Moore, played by Becky Ann Baker, was a mother of four who held a number of jobs. She abandoned them to immerse herself in the world of the revolutionary politics of the time so she too tried to assassinate Gerald Ford. John Hinkley, played by Alexander Gemignai, was a first class loner who had an obsession with Jodi Foster. To impress her he tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Finally, perhaps the most well known of the assassins, Lee Harvey Oswald, played by Neil Patrick Harris. Oswald assassinated John Kennedy in Dallas.

The Cast of Assassins

Though all these assassins come from different eras and generations, they are all connected through each other. They all share the same qualities. If the question was asked, “what makes an assassin?, this would be the answer. They are pathetic and lonely. Their sense of reality is so warped that they think killing a president is the answer to their problems. And they are all connected by the desire to have someone – anyone – pay attention to them, no matter how and without regard to consequence. The scary and disturbing part is that deep down inside most of us can identify with one or more of these qualities. That is where the statement is made in this musical. That though we seem so different, deep down we are not so unlike them. And the question that may never be answered is what pushes someone over the edge. Bad reviews? Stomach Problems? A bad day?

In the show all the assassins are held up in a alternate universe of some kind made just for them. They come and go and as they please and relive their moment of glory. The leader of the group is Booth, who acts as the pioneer to all of them, and their driving force. Also in this role is the proprietor, who promises fame and glory. Much to the dismay of the assassins, he never quite delivers. The balladeer serves like their conscience and the narrator of the story. This all is connected because as each assassins commits their crime, each one before them gains new fame and glory so that it beautifully flows from each person to the next.

Denis O’Hare, Michael Cerveris, James Barbour, Becky Ann Baker

One can talk about the assassins forever, but each actor has to bring them to life. This is one of the best musical ensembles I have ever seen. Each one complimenting the other. Michael Cerveris is wonderful as Booth, slightly overacting, to give Booth that extra insanity he needs. Mario Cantone’s Santa suit rant is worth the price of admission alone. Mary Catherine Garrison and Becky Ann Baker are hilarious. Neil Patrick Harris has most certainly left his Doogie Howser days behind, and is riveting as Lee Harvey Oswald. The total gem of the show is Denis O’Hare who plays Charles Guiteau with such a sense of insanity and humor, that I couldn’t wait for him to return to the stage once he left.

The shows staging is stark and lets the actors take center stage. The set is very simple and is the underbelly of a carnival roller coaster, quite fitting for men and women of their kind. The orchestra engulfs the stage, creating a nice atmosphere. 

Stephen Sondheim has created a score that goes hand and hand with the assassins themselves. Each song flows through the times with each new assassin representing each time period. Slightly warped versions of classic American tunes like Hail To The Chief represent the warped minds of these men and women. Then don’t exactly see things as normal people do. The intricacies of Sondheim’s lyrics can only be truly appreciated while actually listening to the cast recording as there are so many levels to them.

This is a stunning show attempting to answer one question. Why? Does it answer it? I don’t think the question can ever be answered. If it does anything it plants the doubt in your mind that if these ordinary people with the same problems as us could do this, Could you? All these assassins wanted was attention to be paid, and for one small minute it was, but in the end, no one visit’s a traitor’s grave.   

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