BWW Reviews: ASSASSINS Slays the Audience at Ephrata Performing Arts Center
If ever there were a disquieting topic for a musical, Presidential assassinations would be it. But Stephen Sondheim is no stranger to the world of the peculiar - SWEENEY TODD should prove that, as did ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. ASSASSINS may be the most peculiar of an odd lot, among his works, but that makes it no less entertaining or significant. Why do Americans assassinate Presidents? Is it to make political points? Is it because they're mentally unstable? Is it a cry for attention? Any or all of those things?
ASSASSINS, with music by Sondheim and book by John Weidman, was an Off-Broadway sellout when it opened at Playwrights Horizons in 1990, with a dazzling cast including Victor Garber, Terrence Mann, Lee Wilkof, and Debra Monk. When it moved, finally, to Broadway in 2004 - there was an extra delay thanks to the events of September 11, 2001, which it was felt made the show too sensitive to put on when originally scheduled - Neil Patrick Harris was on board as Lee Harvey Oswald, and Michael Cerveris won a Tony for his John Wilkes Booth. It's on stage at Ephrata Performing Arts Center now, and, fortuitously, the local talent directed by EPAC's Artistic Director, Edward Fernandez, are no slouches themselves when it comes to portraying America's favorite shooters, attempted shooters, and would-be plane-crashers.
A show about the disturbed need to kill people should probably not be peppy, cheerful, and tuneful. It shouldn't be wildly funny. It shouldn't have moments of complete and total adorability, certainly. But, on the other hand - why not? It's about a theme as all-American as baseball and music, and we have peppy, cheerful musicals about those. And, like some of the best American musical theatre, it has a happy carnival theme - although the carnival barker Proprietor (a delightful Evan Cooper) is urging his motley crew of patrons over to the Shoot To Win booth rather than the carousel.
Assisting the Proprietor and the Balladeer/narrator (Tim Reilly, in fine voice) is the assassin who started the whole business for America, John Wilkes Booth, who interacts with all of his succeeding killer and would-be killer associates to bring them together. "The Ballad of Booth," by the Balladeer and Booth, follows Booth's political motivations for assassinating Abraham Lincoln, while throwing about the canards often perpetuated about him - that he was motivated somehow by bad theatrical reviews, among others, which, if true, would make almost all actors suspect of violent crimes. Booth is played by Sean Young, who also played Booth in the 2000 EPAC production, and who gives the part a necessary gravitas. Of all the assassins besides Lee Harvey Oswald, he is the least comic, the most determined, and he sees Oswald's killing of John Kennedy as the apotheosis of Presidential assassination, possibly even greater than his own accomplishment. Young is a delight in the part.
Also a delight is Elizabeth Pattey, playing would-be-assassin Sarah Jane Moore, with a darkly comic routine that can only be embraced. Some of the finest moments on stage are with Pattey and Martha Marie Wasser, who plays Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (the two women who both failed to kill Gerald Ford), as a two-woman comedy schtick routine throughout the production that is utterly hilarious. Pattey's difficulties as Moore with her dog (fortunately a stuffed one) and her young son (played by Bailey Ammons), both of whom accompany her and her loaded gun, are the stuff of pure genius.
Wasser's Fromme and Sean Deffley's John Hinckley are perhaps the most chilling of the would-be assassins, as they chorus in "Unworthy of Your Love," since they are motivated by the most appalling reason - love. Fromme was one of Charles Manson's "girls", motivated by her love for Manson, and Hinckley was motivated by the need to win the attention and affection of his beloved, actress Jodie Foster. (Yeah, that's the way to win a girl's heart, for sure.)