‘Assassins,” which has just opened the season at the Princeton Summer Theater on the campus of Princeton University, has always been a bit of a puzzle. When the play first opened on Broadway in 1990, it had amassed a large advance sale, and was expected to become another huge Stephen Sondheim hit.
But Frank Rich’s review in the New York Times rather quickly destroyed expectations. It read, in part: “‘Assassins’ will have to fire with sharper aim and fewer blanks if it is to shoot to kill.” The production shuddered and closed after 73 performances, losing its investment. A production in London fared little better — 76 performances.
It was felt that the show, based on the assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents, simply did not work. The script, by John Weidman, tried to bring motivation to the various events, but apparently without success. And Sondheim’s score was judged not to be among his best work. Later productions would try re-writes, and Sondheim wrote an additional tune, but the show never has achieved its original promise.
The current staging, in the hands of director Tatiana Pandiani and a company of mostly recently graduated actors, is superb — theatrically as exciting as could be, technically thrilling and colorful. But the show still does not work. Always upbeat, clever, and courageous — Sondheim’s lyrics are some of his finest, but you won’t come back up the aisle humming anything popular.
Don’t blame the cast: Every one of them gives a nuanced performance and the crowd scenes are among the best seen in months. Billy Cohen is a strong John Wilkes Booth (who shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theater in Washington). Christopher Beard plays John Hinckley with great finesse (he was after Ronald Reagan.). Maeve Brady is back with the summer group for another season, this time as Sara Jane Moore (a failed Gerald Ford assassin) and joined by Lily Davis (playing sister-Ford-plotter Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme).
Others who impress and often steal scenes are Ryan Gedrich, Esteban Godov, Maddie Meyers (as Emma Goldman), and Aksel Tang. Playing the Balladeer and the Proprietor, two sort of mediators, are Jared Brendon Hopper and Jake McCready.
But even the finest of actors will flail a bit when the script has Booth begging the Oswald character (name changed here) to please execute JFK rather than merely commit suicide because it will add stature to all the other assassin group.
They are helped by a vibrant set design by Jeffrey Van Velsor, fine choreography by Inaki Agustin, and especially powerful lighting by Alex Mannix. The veteran Vince DiMura leads the four-piece band from the keyboard onstage. And the evening has been jammed into a 90-minute single act.
Assassins, Princeton Summer Theater, Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University. Through Sunday, June 26. Performances run Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $24.50 to $29.50. www.princetonsummertheater.org.