first saw Assassins about fifteen years ago in a weak student
production that made it seem like a really lousy show. Now the
admirable Union Theatre offers us a beautifully staged, beautifully
acted, beautifully sung production for which I have nothing but praise.
you know something? It's still a lousy show. But the production is so
good that it almost - almost - doesn't matter.
- book by
John Weidman, songs by Stephen Sondheim - is a musical salute to the
men and women who have killed (or tried to kill) Presidents of the
United States. John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln, shot) and Lee Harvey Oswald
(Kennedy, shot) are present, of course, along with such lesser-known
heroes as Giuseppe Zangara (Roosevelt, missed) and Lynette 'Squeaky'
Fromme (Ford, tackled before she could shoot).
sympathetically, others presented as inept clowns, and the show builds
to a climax in which the others urge a hesitant Oswald to shoot because
his triumph will somehow validate and give shape to their stories.
clearly some taste questions here. But they're not the show's real
problem - the fact that the script is banal, the structure clumsy and
the songs almost uniformly poor is a handicap that even the
considerable talents of director Michael Strassen and his cast are
unable to overcome.
The musical begins promisingly, with a song ironically celebrating every American's right to their dreams, even if they include shooting people. And near the end, Another National Anthem ('Where's my prize?') has some of the angry energy of the best of Sweeney Todd. But with the list of songs in front of me as I write, I can't remember how any of the others go.
I can see the
logic of giving an I-did-it-all-for-you duet to Fromme, obsessed with
Charles Manson, and John Hinkley (Reagan, wounded), obsessed with Jodie
Foster, but the song itself is nothing. It may have seemed like a good
idea to turn Charles Guiteau (Garfield, shot) into a comic character,
but playing his trial and hanging as a mix of gospel and minstrel show
is just a mess.
songs come in what almost seems like random order, and writer Weidman
had to invent an extra character ('The Balladeer') to provide
occasional links and exposition, only to forget him for long stretches
and have Booth or someone else fill in.
rather sweet but
ultimately irrelevant scene between Leon Czolgosz (McKinley, shot) and
anarchist Emma Goldman only reminds us that the musical Ragtime was to
do a similar moment much better, and is followed by an equally
pointless sequence that presents Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Ford,
missed) as dumb-blonde airheads out of a TV sitcom.
is in any way a criticism of the cast, who all sing beautifully, even
when they have nothing worth singing, and who frequently act strongly
enough to almost make what they're saying seem worth listening to.
smooth-talking Booth carries much of the dramatic and thematic weight
with style, while Leigh McDonald's Moore is a delightfully loopy comic
creation. In a couple of solo scenes as Samuel Byck (Nixon, planned to
fly a plane into the White House), Nick Holder gives a bravura
performance, turning weak material into a nightmare version of the
almost-insane ordinary guy you can meet on the streets of any city; and
with about five minutes of stage time and a half-dozen lines, Marc
Joseph creates a believable and even sympathetic Oswald.
definitely want to see this, if only to fill in a gap or to see the
show getting as good a production as it is ever likely to have. But
they will find is a talented bunch of people doing their best to spin
gold out of dross.
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Assassins - Union Theatre 2010