Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Weidman and Sondheim set their musical in an abstract and almost alternate universe where the lives of these nine individuals intersect, even though their assassination attempts took place sometimes hundreds of years apart from each other. The main location is a shooting range (a surreal purgatory of sorts) overseen by a carnival midway proprietor, where the stories of the nine assassins are laid out in a series of vignettes that are interwoven together.
As the proprietor of the shooting range encourages and arms the assassins by promising that their problems will be solved by killing a president, we learn pertinent details about the lives of these famous and infamous individuals, including four who succeeded in their assassination attempts (John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Lee Harvey Oswald) and five who failed (Guiseppe Zangara, Lynette Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, John Hinckley, and Sam Byck). There is also a Balladeer who serves as a narrator for the show and sings and comments on the actions of the assassins until the past, present, and future intersect and he is pulled into the narrative and asked to do something that will validate the lives of the other assassins.
While Sondheim and Weidman wrote this musical over 30 years ago, and it's fairly obvious they are laying out an alternate view of the American Dream which everyone, even an assassin, is told they have the ability and right to achieve, I have to imagine that it resonates more in the world we live in today than it did when it first premiered. While fame-seeking social media influencers who aspire to have millions of Twitter followers, and a former president who found most of his success from hosting a TV reality competition show, aren't exactly people you have to worry about using a gun to kill others, there is this sense that you can be successful by doing literally nothing, or by just doing one thing that gets the attention or notice of a lot of people. There is also the notion the musical lays out that people are inspired by others who came before them, including some of the assassins being inspired by those who attempted or succeeded in the past.
On the day I saw this production, a mass shooting suspect broadcast his killing of ten people live on Twitch from a camera he mounted on the helmet he was wearing and that video was viewed millions of times. In a manifesto he said he had been inspired by other gunmen. As Sondheim and Weidman lay out in their musical, it's pretty clear that the violence in the past, including what the nine actual people in the show did, has some influence on the ongoing violence in our current world.
While Sondheim's score is superb in how it humorously evokes the musical styles of the specific time periods of each assassin, with the recurring use of "Hail to the Chief" as a musical motif that ties many of the scenes together, and his lyrics sardonically comment on the killers' actions, Weidman's book has scenes that run a hair too long at times, often appears to attempt to rationalize their behavior, and is also unapologetic toward their actions. By presenting these nine individuals as mentally disturbed, quirky, or simply normal people with a score to settle and issues they felt could only be resolved by assassinating a president, and an ending that states that "everybody's got the right to be happy," it makes the whole musical a little hard to stomach.
In another Sondheim musical that centers on a murderous character, Sweeney Todd, while Sondheim and bookwriter Hugh Wheeler painted Todd similar to some of the characters in Assassins as a deeply conflicted man who was driven by revenge to kill, he at least got his comeuppance for his actions and wasn't admired or lauded for what he did. In Assassins there isn't any of that rationalized understanding of their behavior. By having these killers all still around to spur other assassins on, it's like their legacy just lives on without any punishment, and that, while they are all dead, they will always be remembered, just like any normal person who was successful in legitimate and legal ways is also often highly regarded and remembered after they're gone.
Ron May's direction is perfect, with an inspired and original bit at the end that beautifully ties into the point of everything being connected to each other that Sondheim and Weidman continually project throughout the piece without having it overreach or be seemingly at odds with everything that came before. He uses balloons that are popped when a gun is fired to provide a simple but effective way of demonstrating that noise without having to resort to sound effects that could prove too realistic for some audience members. His cast of the nine assassins and the proprietor is also perfect, without a weak link among them.
While we learn a little more about some of the lesser-known individuals, it is the stories of Booth and Oswald that hold the production together, and Damon J. Bolling and Vinny Chavez are wonderful as these two well-known people. Bolling is commanding as Booth and Chavez creates two distinguished roles: the matter-of-fact Balladeer and the conflicted and questioning Oswald. The rest of the cast is just as good, with Jasmyn Gade and Libby Mueller sensational as the hilarious bickering duo of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, respectively, and Nicholas Hambruch, Jonathon Meader, and Jon Landvick all great as Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Giuseppe Zangara. As John Hinckley, Anand Khalsa shines on the duo he sings with Gade. With two excellently delivered monologues, J. Roger Wood is superb as Samuel Byck, the man who had a crazy idea to hijack a plane and land it on the White House to kill Richard Nixon. Joey Morrison is appropriately seductive as the Proprietor, and the ensemble of Kathleen Berger, Savoy Antoinette, Robert Andrews, Griffin LeBlanc, and Robyn Foley shine, with Berger having a nice command of Emma Goldman and Antoinette leading the haunting group number "Something Just Broke."
Douglas Clarke's set design is smart and uses a two-story shooting gallery setting, with "Hit" and "Miss" signs that are lite up to show whether or not one of the assassins was successful. Ashley Hohnstein's lighting design is quite effective in providing a sense of eeriness or foreboding to the darker scenes but also light and bright for the comical moments. Maci Hosler's costumes are period and character specific and Pete Bish's sound design delivers crisp and clear vocals and musical notes from the small band, which, along with the entire cast, sounds perfect under Steve Hilderbrand's wonderful music direction.
While Assassins isn't entirely perfect, it does have an excellent Sondheim score and an intriguing way of depicting the interaction and meeting of these well-known killers across time, along with several haunting and disturbing moments. I only wish Weidman's book wasn't so apologetic in painting these assassins as just normal and unremorseful people. But perhaps that's the point of the show: the fact that all of these people are pretty much just like us is what makes Assassins shocking, disturbing, and somewhat hard to digest, and that by telling their stories and by the public still being fascinated and intrigued by them, we are in some small way legitimizing what they did instead of punishing them for it.
Stray Cat Theatre's Assassins runs through May 21, 2022, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please call 480-227-1766 or visit straycattheatre.org.
Director: Ron May