Updated: Jun 1
Landmark's Assassins audaciously toes the line between brilliance and madness.
APRIL 29, 2023 — LONG BEACH
It's the story of America, the place where any kid can grow up to shoot the President... and just in time for the 2024 presidential primaries!
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's powerful and disturbing “Assassins,” one of Sondheim's most original and exquisitely scored shows, is a musical that gives voice to the men and women who've tried to kill American presidents, exploring their neuroses, their passions, and their delusions, all in a wild vaudeville of American politics.
It even ends with a ballad invitation to “C’mon and shoot a president.” The shock, however, is not in the daring but in — the execution. Weidman’s book situates nine of the country’s would-be presidential assassins, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, in a metaphysical carnival-like atmosphere and lets them goad one another across time, while Sondheim’s score explores their motivations and pungent use of American pastiche, burrowing deep into the national character that bred them.
The musical, after all, is not your average bubbly toe-tapper; its characters also include JFK killer, Lee Harvey Oswald (Lucas Dysart); a wild and crazy Charles Guiteau (Phineas Wilder), who shot James A. Garfield; the Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara (Charlie Carlos) who shot at FDR, missed his target but managed to kill the mayor of Chicago; and American hijacker and attempted assassin Samuel Byck (Corey Shaw), who tried to kill Richard Nixon. Presented in a sideshow setting complete with a sinister barker, ''Assassins'' fully explores the inner lives of these liquidators, whose interactions onstage suggest that the American obsession with fame plays no small part in society's obsession with violence.
Considering that approach, even its creators understood some of the historical trepidation, with their initial attempts to transform the political and cultural context to one more favorably accepted. But on the heels of the fateful Sept. 11th attacks, ''Assassins'' was mothballed indefinitely. For Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Weidman, the delay was just another grueling pause in an artistic process that had begun in the late 1980's. The show germinated and sprung to life again after Mr. Sondheim read a little-known musical by Charles Gilbert Jr. (also called ''Assassins''), about a Vietnam veteran who returns from the war. He, too, becomes an assassin.
Mr. Sondheim contacted Mr. Gilbert in 1988 and began a three-way collaboration with Mr. Weidman to rework the show. Mr. Gilbert is now credited with originating the show's idea. Then in 1992, Donmar Warehouse in London produced the musical with an additional song, ''Something Just Broke,'' in which an assembly of presidential assailants past and future vent about their feelings about John F. Kennedy's assassination, and suddenly it all came together.
Dark as that sounds, the show’s revue-like format allows the authors to vary the palette with mad scenes, melodrama, minstrelsy and vaudeville. But in the presentation of “Assassins” that opened this past Friday night at the Long Beach Landmark Theatre, it is the comedy that works best. Director Megan O’Toole has toned down the violent factor substantially with the replacement of the usual “guns” used in the show with items like mallets and juggling balls for bullets. The beginning scenes are portrayed instead with killers toting rubber mallets, centered around a neon-lit, high striker, ring-the-bell hammer game.
Some of the segments of the show are hilarious indeed. Emily Morgan, lighter than air, and a witchy Maddie Levy make a very animated sociopathic Lucy-and-Ethel pair as Sara Jane Moore and Lynette Fromme, would-be killers of Gerald R. Ford. When Moore’s make-shift “gun” fails to discharge, she thinks fast and throws the balls at him instead.
But there is no mistaking the show’s serious intentions and its confidence in pursuing them. In his unusually fine book, Mr. Weidman keeps striking the theme of powerlessness in the lives of the assassins, whether it is the result of unvarnished mental illness or of a poverty so entrenched in American life it seems punitive.
Either way, “Assassins” offers no pat answers. Rather, its raison d’être as a musical is to force you into and out of complacency. In daring the audience to sympathize with Leon Czolgosz (Owen Lovejoy; “Gun Song”), an American laborer and anarchist who assassinated president William McKinley in New York in 1901, or with John Hinckley (Mark Waters), the Reagan shooter, it diminishes any sense of protective distance from the heinous acts they carry out.
But “Assassins” is largely self-correcting, especially in its score. Between those two haunting and turbulent verses of “Gun Song,” a middle section praises the power of the trigger in a joyful barbershop chorale. The Balladeer’s three portraits in song are as catchy as musical theater gets: the one for Booth a banjo tune, Czolgosz’s a common-man anthem, and Guiteau’s a hymn of uplift — after which he IS literally uplifted, on the gallows.
The ensemble cast is vocally exceptional, with especially thrilling contributions from Jay Dysart (“Texas School Book Depository”) as Booth, Owen Lovejoy (“The Ballad of Czolgosz”) as Czolgosz, Corey Shaw (“America”) as Samuel Byck, young Sammy Schwarz (“I Shot My Dog”) as the Boy, and Bobby Brannon (“The Ballad of Booth”) as the Balladeer.
And Director O’Toole has an off-center, love-obsessed Hinckley (Mark Waters) singing a beautiful folk-rock ballad called “Unworthy of Your Love” to a heedless Jodie Foster; and then when it becomes a duet with Ms. Fromme (known as Squeaky) charmingly singing to a Charles Manson, the squirmy, tragic pathos in the air becomes weighty.
Still, when Giuseppe Zangara (Charlie Carlos), in his inchoate crime against Franklin D. Roosevelt, calls himself an “American nothing,” or when the nine assassins sing together about “another national anthem” that applies to the likes of them, you may feel, as I did, the rumblings of our unsettled country in your bones. “Assassins” is the report of that unsettlement, as well as the bang.
And finally, Lucas Dysart excels as Lee Harvey Oswald, proving a lynchpin of modern history, the production's most harrowing and effective final scene.
Coerced by Booth and the others into committing murder, the scene uses much the same language as in the opening number. But then when we watch Oswald’s face slowly twist into the acceptance of their ideas, and then see that final decision alter a national consciousness, it makes Oswald — and the other assassins — feel terrifyingly inhuman.
As the philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Words are loaded pistols." And this is a show that dares to let these uniquely American misfits tell their own stories and make their own cases, as they slowly realize that together, across the decades, they have become a powerful force for change. Theirs is the other national anthem, the dark underbelly of the American Dream.
In vividly theatrical terms, this production focuses on the crossroads of history at which some of America's most despised public figures meet each other as equals to share the stories of where they went wrong or, perhaps more horrifyingly, where they went right. Assassins quickly dispenses with any fears about political impropriety or glorifying these figures: the show isn't that simple. But it finds ways to make figures like Czolgosz, Guiteau, or even Hinckley naturally musical: how better to express the fiercest pain, hatred, or passion than through song?
And all that is neatly accomplished with a twelve-member orchestra conducted by Curtis Heard, featuring orchestrations by Michael Starobin (that can’t help but bring to mind Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”) and Assassins's vaudeville of star turns and ensemble numbers capturing the murderers' anger, isolation, and rejection.
WITH: JAY DYSART · PHINEAS WILDER · OWEN LOVEJOY · CHARLIE CARLOS · COREY SHAW · MADDIE LEVY · EMILY MORGAN · MARK WATERS · LUCAS DYSART · BOBBY BRANNON · KENNETH SPEARS · GENIE HOSSAIN · LISA BODE HEARD · JAMES MATTHIS · MATTHEW KOPP · SAMMY SCHWARZ ·
LONG BEACH LANDMARK THEATRE COMPANY, PRESENTS — STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S “ASSASSINS,” Music and Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM; Book by JOHN WEIDMAN; Based on an idea by CHARLES GILBERT JR.; Orchestrations by MICHAEL STAROBIN; Directed and Choreographed by MEGAN O’TOOLE; Musically Directed by CURTIS HEARD; Scenic and Lighting Design by DEREK JONES; Sound Design by KEN BEAUPRE; Costume Design by JAMES CARHART; Stage Managed by LACEY SPENCE; Produced by JAY DYSART; Assistant Projection Design by JEANNE VALLEROY.
Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” will run from April 28th through May 14th. The show venue is located in the heart of downtown Long Beach at 241 Cedar Avenue (First Congregational Church) at the corner of 3rd and Cedar. Tickets range $30-60. Running time, 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission. Flat-fee parking is available at the LB Civic Center parking structure, located at 332 W. Broadway. Street parking in the area is free of charge after 6:00 PM. For Tickets, see: https://lblandmark.org/assassins/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report