June 22, 2016

PST Opens With Dark, Violent, and Timely “Assassins”: Song, Dance, Guns Galore in Offbeat Sondheim Musical

Theater rev

Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) 2016 season opener, Assassins, is chilling in its timeliness.

Just five days after a gunman assassinated 49 people in Orlando, the opening-night audience watched as nine characters — all wannabe assassins of U.S. Presidents — paraded across the Hamilton Murray stage, brandishing an array of firearms. 

As the nation mourns for the victims of Orlando and tries to understand the senseless violence, Stephen Sondheim’s (music and lyrics) and librettist John Weidman’s dark 1991 musical Assassins questions who these would-be killers from the past — from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley — were, where they came from, and what motivated them.

In the style of a bouncy musical revue, Assassins jars with its ironic humor, its sardonic tone, and its fragmentary — sometimes realistic, sometimes fantastical — structure. It’s a pastiche of musical styles, in 17 different scenes, providing glimpses of these nine disturbed, angry, hopeful, fearful individuals, all outcasts of society, wanting to get even, wanting to grasp their moments of fame.

They are, the musical points out, products of our troubled society and its politics. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once wrote, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Assassins focuses on particularly gnarled and twisted representations of the human race.

The views provided here by Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Weidman of these psychopaths as they prepare and carry out their destructive plans, are not deeply psychological or philosophical, nor are they particularly sympathetic. The show does, however, present the deranged thoughts, feelings, and voices of the “assassins” in a variety of contexts, some of which deliver unforgettable numbers, vignettes, sketches, and monologues.

“Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” sings the proprietor (Jake McCready) of the fairground shooting gallery in the opening number as he provides a gun for each of the would-be assassins. “Hey, kid, failed your test? Dream girl unimpressed? Show her you’re the best. If you can shoot a president — you can get the prize,” he continues. “Don’t stay mad, life’s not as bad as it seems. If you keep your goal in sight, you can climb to any height. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams ….”

In the shadowy ambience of this carnival setting, with strings of lights above, a big target with a blue bullseye painted on the stage, and a brightly lit sign above the proscenium stating “SHOOTING GALLERY — Everyone’s a winner!!!” — the proprietor arms and encourages the motley assortment of misfits, ranging across more than a century of American history: Leon Czolgosz (Ryan Gedrich), assassin of William McKinley; John Hinckley (Christopher J. Beard), attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan; Charles Guiteau (Esteban Godoy), assassin of James Garfield; Giuseppe Zangara (Aksel Tang), attempted killer of Franklin D. Roosevelt; Samuel Byck (David Drew), attempted assassin of Richard Nixon; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lily Davis) and Sara Jane Moore (Maeve Brady), attempted assassins of Gerald Ford; and John Wilkes Booth (Billy Cohen), murderer of Lincoln. (One additional killer does not appear until the surprising penultimate scene.)

From 1865 to 1975, with dates and place names projected on the back screens, these characters appear in a range of settings, minimally suggested by Jeffrey Van Velsor’s spare, effectively simple set design. Many are locations where assassinations took place or were planned, with the last scene taking place in “Limbo,” where the assassins gather for their final angry reflections on their circumstances.

The show, with its nine protagonists and multiple settings across time and space, is intentionally disjointed, keeping its audience at a critical — sometimes amused, sometimes horrified, sometimes both at once — distance. Keeping track of who’s who and exactly what’s going on can be difficult at times, but reference points on the upstage screens and knowledge of American history are helpful.

Fortunately this PST company — made up of recent Princeton University graduates, a couple of undergraduates, and several young New York professionals, all under the intelligent, seasoned direction of New York-based Tatiana Pandiani — is strikingly talented and capable. The 13 experienced performers work smoothly and effectively together, as the scenes flow rapidly, the different characters come across vividly and powerfully in all their eccentricities. Vocally and dramatically, the performances are consistently excellent.

The full-cast production numbers, with interesting, engaging choreography by Inaki Baldassarre, are arresting and powerful in conveying the macabre tone of the production, most notably, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” which begins and ends the show, and “Another National Anthem,” presenting the dark side of the American Dream, (“for those who never win, the ones who might have been, those who love regretting, those who like extremes, those who thrive on chaos and despair”).

While Assassins does not feature Mr. Sondheim’s most memorable music, the score here is still memorable for its searing ironies and sardonic disconnects between melody and meaning. “Unworthy of Your Love,” for example, is a beautifully incongruous romantic ballad, as Ms. Davis’s “Squeaky” Fromme sings of her love for Charles Manson in a duet with Mr. Beard’s John Hinckley intoning his obsession with the unattainable Jodie Foster.

In the unnerving “Gun Song,” Ms. Brady’s Sara Jane Moore joins Mr. Godoy’s Guiteau, Mr. Cohen’s Booth and Mr. Gedrich’s Czolgosz in an eerie barber shop quartet–style ode to their deadly weapons: “What a wonder is a gun! … and all you have to do is move your little finger and you can change the world.”

On the keyboard, Vince di Mura, resident composer and music director for Princeton University’s Lewis Center, directs the four-piece, on-stage pit band with flair and precision. Technical director Van Velsor’s production team, with lighting by Alex Mannix, costumes by Keating Helfrich and sound by Joseph Haggerty, is first-rate, ingeniously complementing Ms. Pandiani’s fine production.

Assassins will never be one of Mr. Sondheim’s best loved works. It received mixed reviews from the critics in its 1991 Off-Broadway debut, performed for sold-out audiences and won five Tony Awards when it finally was revived on Broadway in 2004. Since then it has been produced with increasing frequency throughout the world.

Mr. Weidman has described his disparate array of characters as “peculiarly American …. We live in a country where most cherished national myths encourage us to believe that in America our dreams not only can come true but should come true, and that if they don’t someone or something is to blame.” Not surprisingly, Assassins provides no answers, no solutions to the upsetting vision of America it presents — but it does leave audiences with much to think about.

“Assassins” will play for one more weekend, June 23-26, with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the University campus. For information call (732) 997-0205 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org/tickets.