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Assassins
Princeton Summer Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Cameron's review of Peter Grimes


Jared Hopper (right) and Cast
Photo by Ogemdi Ude
When I arranged my tickets to see Assassins at Princeton Summer Theater several weeks ago, I had no idea that the performance I would end up attending would come fewer than seven days after the worst mass shooting in American history. It is impossible not to consider the influence of wall-to-wall news coverage of the events that occurred in Orlando, Florida, last Sunday when you're watching a musical in which the characters gleefully point guns at the audience (and each other) and extol their acts of violence as expressions of beauty and transcendence. Yet in many ways, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's difficult 1990 musical about the lives the men and women who tried to bring down the most powerful men in America—and occasionally succeeded—is an ideal work to grapple with in the wake of such a tragedy. As the theater's Artistic Director Ogemdi Ude wrote in a program note, the musical "investigate[s] the question of why violence occurs and what drives people to act in such a way.

It also brilliantly addresses the futility of violence, through Sondheim's razor-sharp lyrics and Weidman's gleefully messy book scenes. In "The Ballad of Booth," which recounts the fate of the "pioneer" of presidential assassins, The Balladeer (a de facto narrator) presciently sings of the casualness with which American society addresses violence in public life, an almost blasé acceptance: "Angry men don't write the rules / and guns don't right the wrongs. / Hurts a while, but then the country's / back where it belongs." If this musical communicates one thing with clear eyes, it is that the use of violence to prove a point is always a fool's errand; the act itself will always dwarf the underlying cause.

In many ways, Assassins is the redheaded stepchild of Sondheim's corpus, and not without reason. Much of the music is stirring, but it never really comes together as a cohesive musical. Sondheim has excelled at weaving narrative and pastiche—two of his most notable works, Company and Follies, achieve this brilliantly—but Assassins so often feels like a grab bag of vignettes that try the audience's patience as much as they provoke serious reflection on violence and megalomania. Although director Tatiana Pandiani's production is smooth and assured in many ways, it cannot escape some of the material's intrinsic banality.

The cast is largely made up of Princeton University students and alumni, many of whom are superb. I particularly enjoyed Maeve Brady's manic Sara Jane Moore and Christopher J. Beard's earnest, pathetic John Hinckley, Jr. Esteban Godoy brilliantly captures the snake-oil salesman Charles Guiteau, the egomaniacal assassin of President James Garfield who believed the president had promised him the ambassadorship to France, enough to make up for deficits in vocal ability. Jake McCready makes for a vocally assured Proprietor, the ghostly character who operates the shooting gallery in which the musical takes place.

Unfortunately, the two most crucial roles are not well cast. Billy Cohen does not possess the gravitas required to assert John Wilkes Booth's position as dean of the assassin club. And Jared Brendon Hopper doesn't bring much of anything to the difficult dual role of The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, who the other assassins hope will cement their places in history. Both Cohen and Hopper have trouble projecting their voices in the small, unamplified theater, and Hopper occasionally garbles his words (a sin in Sondheim).

Able musical support comes from a small onstage band in which violinist Victoria Davidjohn is the unquestionable standout. Despite quibbles, this is an assured production of a daunting work, and one that will surely remain relevant as long as violent acts persist in the world. I look forward to taking in the rest of Princeton Summer Theater's ambitious season, which includes God of Carnage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Fool for Love.

Assassins runs through Sunday, June 26, 2016, at Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Tickets (evenings, $29,50; matinees and student pricing, $24.50) can be purchased online at www.princetonsummertheater.org or at the box office.


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