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This review by Simon Saltzman prepared for the June 9, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: ‘Assassins’

Therapy can be deadly. If you feel your life would be made better by picking up a gun and shooting those whom you feel are responsible for making you feel unhappy, unfulfilled, unloved, and unwanted, then consider the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical "Assassins" that has just re-appeared in a Roundabout Theater production. Under the expert marksmanship of director Joe Mantello (Tony-winner for "Take Me Out" and "Wicked"), "Assassins" considers the fine but taut line between the psychological motives of the assassins who killed our presidents and our compulsive, possibly morbid, curiosity about them.

Notwithstanding the fact that Sondheim (thinking back to "Sweeney Todd") has the elegance and brilliance to weave a witty and satirical musical tapestry out of fear, frustration, and loathing, his achievement is moot in light of the sour taste one feels when it’s over. Yet ugly as it is at is core, "Assassins" is stunning in its performance and staging.

Audiences and critics were confounded, but also awed, by what was perceived as Sondheim’s audacity in composing this highly unorthodox musical, which explored the shattered American dream from the perspective of those who were rudely awakened from it. "Assassins" opened for a limited run in 1990 at Playwrights Horizons and has since played in numerous regional theaters.

Consider the sheer chutzpah of this dangerously dark musical that follows the route of those disturbed people, with their maniacal minds and motives, as they are moved to assassinate our presidents throughout history.Presumably the experience is meant to be unnerving and unsettling, to say the least. It is. And to be reminded of would-be-assassin Samuel Byck, who had intended to crash a hijacked plane into Richard Nixon’s White House, is nothing less than spooky in the light of 9/11.

Presented much like a revue, "Assassins" episodically offers a rogues gallery of infamous social and political misfits. Each one is given an identifying musical motif and his or her moment in the spotlight. The musical takes a sharply defined look at the perpetrators, as each of their stories unfolds within a surreal setting, a shooting gallery, given an impressively haunted look by designer Robert Brill and eerily lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

Introduced almost as vaudeville performers by Marc Kudisch, who serves insinuatingly as the gallery’s "Proprietor," are Michael Cerveris as John Wilkes Booth, the actor who shot Lincoln; James Barbour, as Leon Czolgosz, the Socialist who shot McKinley; Denis O’Hare as the demented lawyer and evangelical preacher, Charles Guiteau, who shot Garfield; Jeffrey Kuhn as Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to kill Hoover and Roosevelt, but failed and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cernak, instead; Neil Patrick Harris as Lee Harvey Oswald, the Marxist marine who shot both President Kennedy and Governor John Connally; Mario Cantone as Samuel Byck (see reference above); Mary Catherine Garrison as Manson family member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who failed to notice that her gun wasn’t loaded when she shot at Ford; Alexander Gemignani as the Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinkley Jr., who wounded Reagan; and Becky Ann Baker as FBI informant Sara Jane Moore, who also attempted to kill Ford.

Oswald portrayer Harris, in another guise, is the musical’s balladeer, and he validates much of Sondheim’s melodic Americana score, a mix of ballads, marches, and anthems beginning and ending with the haunting "Everybody’s Got the Right," and including such sardonically chilling ditties as "The Ballad of Booth," "The Gun Song," and "The Ballad of Guiteau/Guiteau." It is hard to single out one best performer since this is truly an ensemble effort, but Barbour’s sturdy baritone gave sizable structure to Czolgosz’s personal instability, and it’s hard to forget Cerveris’ Booth, as he insidiously stalks much of the action.

Baker and Garrison get the show’s biggest laughs as the daffy dames who can’t shoot straight. I can’t say that I liked hearing so many gunshots or having guns aimed directly at me. "Assassins" may not be your idea of entertainment, but it is intellectually and musically superior to everything on Broadway at the moment, and for that alone it is commendable.

– Simon Saltzman

Assassins, Roundabout at Studio 54, 254 West 54. Stephen Sondheim musical. Extended into October. 212-719-1300. Five Tony Awards including for Michael Cerveris, Best Revival of a Musical. Lighting, Direction, and Orchestration.


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