BWW Review: ASSASSINS at Yale Repertory Theatre
The American Dream. Disillusionment. Political, and personal alienation. The right to be happy. All of these concepts come to vivid life on stage in Yale Rep's latest production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's dark, but brilliant musical ASSASSINS.
For those not-familiar with ASSASSINS, the piece, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1990 (and finally made it to Broadway in 2004) is a history lesson and a cautionary tale of the nine men and women who have successfully (and not-so-successfully) assassinated U.S. Presidents. Presented in a series of scenes and songs, the audience is introduced to these individuals who singularly changed to course of American history with one violent act. It presents them not as a collection of singular actors, but as a community or family equally let down by their shortcomings, illnesses (mental and physical) and most importantly, their country. Some of the names are more familiar - John Wilkes Booth the "pioneer" and pseudo-leader of this merry bunch (Robert Lenzi) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick, who pulls double duty also playing the Balladeer). Others, are not as familiar - Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Sara Jane Moore (Julia Murney), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Samuel Byck (Richard R. Henry), Leon Czolgosz (P.J. Griffith), and Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek). But all have a story to tell, and a reason for their actions.
On the surface, a musical about presidential assassins sounds like a very strange thing. But coming from the man who brought us a musical about a murderous barber and human meat-pies, it might not be that surprising to see the subject come to life on stage. And in this production by Yale Rep, that is exactly what it does - comes to life, and it does so brilliantly. From the first chords to the last gunshot (and yes, there are many gunshots) ASSASSINS makes you think, makes you laugh, and makes you take stock, not just of what these people did, but why. What was so bad that drove them to these desperate and violent acts and how, in 2017, are things any different than these firmly cemented moments in history?
There are so many things that are right about this production. First, the cast, as a whole, is stellar. Standout performances include Lauren Molina and Julia Murney as the two female assassins, who form a crazy bond over Kentucky Fried Chicken and Charles Manson, and bring comic relief to what would otherwise be a very dark subject. Stephen DeRosa as the cake walking, evangelist, and author, Charles Guiteau is frenetic and hilarious. Anytime he is on stage, there is a certain manic energy that flows behind him. Richard R. Henry (Samuel Byck - who tried to crash a plane into Richard Nixon) delivers two brilliant monologues that illustrate the aspiration and frustration of a seemingly regular Joe (and draws some of the biggest laughs of the evening.) Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer plays a solid counterpoint and storyteller, and shows a strong voice and presence in his scenes. Austin Durant as the Proprietor eggs the cast along with a sinister smile and operates as a puppeteer, guiding the fates of these assassins. Finally, Robert Lenzi as Booth is strongest in his later scenes with Mr. Frederick's Lee Harvey Oswald, conveying strength, but desperation to be validated and given a voice in history.
Director James Bundy made a number of interesting choices in this production, many which work quite well. The use of a bare stage with just the most critical of supporting scenery (carnival trappings, electric chair, gallows, etc.) allow for each story to come to life in their own unique way. He guides the cast a bit more on the comedic side overall, which in most cases works well. Only in a few scenes is some of the somberness lost due to those choices. Overall, though, he has captured the tone of the piece perfectly - part social statement, part comedic revue, and part historical reference. As I exited the theater, the audience was already discussing the show, not just what was good about the production, but about the subject and the topics explored, which I think is a strong statement as to the impact ASSASSINS has on people.
The technical elements of Yale Rep's production also shine (literally and figuratively.) The use of a well-designed backdrop for projections of photographs, newspaper clippings, and other visuals tie the characters on stage to the reality of the actions they took in life. There was a slight delay at the beginning of the show due to the screen not projecting properly, but it was quickly resolved and the play begin anew, illustrating the importance of that piece to the overall design. Kudos to Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez, Technical Director Steph Waaser and Projection Designer Michael Commendatore for the design choices and delivery. Ilona Somogyi's costumes serve a critical role in this production, due to the limited scenery. The costumes set the time period and context for the audience in each vignette and, when the cast is all together, paint a broad picture of the 100+ years of American history represented in the show. The musicians, led by Musical Director Andrea Grody is extremely strong, and quite large for a show of this size (13 musicians).
ASSASSINS is not a show that comes along every day, and especially not presented with the degree of quality on display in Yale Rep's production. It is entertaining, thought provoking, visually exciting, and most importantly, timely. The story is as important today as ever, with a country divided, the American government (and the American dream) in turmoil, and regular people looking for a way to make a difference. And while violence like that displayed by ASSASSINS' cast of characters is never the right choice, understanding what can lead to it, and doing what we can to prevent or alleviate that suffering, is something each of us can, and should take away from its telling.
ASSASSINS runs at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through April 8 at the University Theatre, 222 York Street. The show is one hour and 45 minutes long and is performed without an intermission. Tickets range from $12 - 99 and are available online at yalerep.org, by phone at (203) 432-1234, and in person at the Yale Rep Box Office (1120 Chapel Street). Student, senior, and group rates are also available.
Mid Photo Credit - Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2017: Jay Aubrey Jones, Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Liz Wisan, and Brian Ray Norris in Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by James Bundy.