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Encores! Off-Center has assembled a murderer’s row of Broadway talent for its revival of the 1990 Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman musical about presidential murderers and those who tried and failed. Mordantly funny and disturbing, Assassins lacks the mainstream appeal necessary for a long commercial engagement, which only makes this very limited-run concert presentation all the more special.
Seen on Broadway in a 2004 Tony Award-winning revival featuring Neil Patrick Harris, the musical fantasia depicts a rogues’ gallery of deranged villains, dating from John Wilkes Booth, who ushered in the notorious practice of eliminating a president, to John Hinckley, Jr., who in 1981 attempted to kill Ronald Reagan in a demented effort to impress actress Jodie Foster. The proceedings are engineered by the Proprietor (Ethan Lipton, in scary lounge-lizard mode), who oversees a shooting range in which presidents are the targets; and the narrator is a Balladeer (Clifton Duncan) who also weighs in musically.
The production thankfully avoids any, even oblique, references to the current president, although the New York City audience burst into loud laughter when the Balladeer sang, “Every now and then the country goes wrong/Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along.” The singer was referring to John Wilkes Booth, although that didn’t especially seem to matter.
Speaking of Booth, there may not be a greater heartthrob on a New York stage at the moment than Abraham Lincoln’s killer as portrayed by Steven Pasquale. The handsome actor — who has emerged as one of theater’s top musical stars thanks to acclaimed performances in such shows as The Bridges of Madison Country, Far From Heaven and The Robber Bridegroom — outdoes himself here with a gorgeously sung turn that blends charm, humor and menace to superb effect. He provides the show’s dramatic highlight in the chilling scene near the end in which Booth seduces a suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald (Cory Michael Smith, The Riddler on Gotham) into turning his violent urges against a president instead of on himself.
But Pasquale’s is just one of many superb performances in this production staged by Anne Kauffman (currently represented on Broadway with the revival of Marvin’s Room).
Shuler Hensley (Young Frankenstein) invests McKinley’s killer, Leon Czolgosz, with a desperate intensity. Steven Boyer (Hand to God) conveys Hinckley’s sweaty obsessiveness with squirm-inducing vividness. John Ellison Conlee (The Full Monty) finds the dark humor in Charles Guiteau’s deluded boastings about the Garfield administration sending him as ambassador to France. Alex Brightman (School of Rock) brings a moving pathos to Giuseppe Zangara, who went to the electric chair after trying to kill FDR. As Samuel Byck, who planned to crash a plane into the White House and kill Nixon, Danny Wolohan scores big laughs with his monologue in which he dictates a fan letter to composer Leonard Bernstein. And Erin Markey and Victoria Clark form a delicious comic duo with their portrayals of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme” and Sara Jane Moore, respectively, with Moore’s inability to shoot straight becoming one of the show’s hilarious running gags.
Not everything works smoothly. At the opening night, there were sound issues and the actors relied on scripts a little more than usual for Encores shows these days. There was also an occasional tentativeness to the performances, although that can certainly be excused considering the limited rehearsal time. More generally, the bare-bones staging proves a bit limiting, lacking the hallucinatory visuals that marked the 2004 Broadway production. Clint Ramos’ period costumes, however, are spot-on.
The performers and 12-piece orchestra do full justice to Sondheim’s score, which incorporates musical styles inspired by the different historical periods in which the show is set. While it produced no songs that went on to become cabaret staples — not surprising, considering their context — the music is richly melodic and the lyrics witty and provocative, such as when the ensemble of assassins justifies their actions by singing, “Everybody’s got the right to be happy/Don’t be mad, life’s not as bad as it seems.” That you find yourself momentarily agreeing with them is a testimony to the power of this haunting, entertaining musical.
Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Damian Baldet, Steven Boyer, Alex Brightman, Victoria Clark, John Ellison Conlee, Eddie Cooper, Clifton Duncan, Andrew Durand, Shuler Hensley, Eryn LeCroy, Ethan Lipton, Hudson Loverro, Erin Markey, Steven Pasquale, Cory Michael Smith, Pearl Sun, Danny Wolohan
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: John Weidman
Director: Anne Kauffman
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music director: Chris Fenwick
Choreographer: Lorin Latarro
Presented by New York City Center Encores! Off-Center
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