Assassins Book by John Weidman. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Joe Mantello. Musical Staging by Jonathan Butterell. Musical Direction by Paul Gemignani. Set design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Becky Ann Baker, James Barbour, Mario Cantone, Michael Cerveris, Mary Catherine Garrison, Alexander Gemignani, Neil Patrick Harris, Marc Kudisch, Jeffrey Kuhn, Denis O'Hare, James Clow, Merwin Foard, Eamon Foley, Kendra Kassebaum, Ken Krugman, Anne L. Nathan, Chris Peluso, Brandon Wardell, Sally Wilfert. A Roundabout Theatre Company Production at Studio 54.
Is something ailing your body, soul, or emotions? Do you desperately want something just beyond your grasp? Well then, step up to the line, aim your gun, and fire at the target. You hit it, you get what you want; you miss, you don't.
Who could turn a deaf ear to the sentiment from the shooting range's Proprietor, "Everybody's got the right to be happy"? Whether you see him as a handsome, well-dressed man singing with a wave and an inviting grin or as a gleeful anarchist, he's the devil just waiting to drag you to Hell with him.
But trips to Hell seldom last less than an eternity, and, in many ways, sitting through the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins seems to take just about as long. It's unfortunate that a musical written in part by one of the theatre's most respected artists arrives on Broadway after a 13-year journey only to be shot down by the misapplied talent circling the final production like vultures.
That the material survives is the good news. The show is one almost lacking in seams, bearing a concept that audaciously toes the line between brilliance and madness. 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 Leon Czolgosz (who killed McKinley), Charles Guiteau (Garfield's assassin), or even John Hinckley (who attempted to kill Reagan) naturally musical: how better to express the fiercest pain, hatred, or passion than through song?
Yet in this production, nothing feels natural or musical. Almost nothing creates, in vividly theatrical terms, the crossroads of history at which some of America's most despised public figures can meet as equals to share the stories of where they went wrong or, perhaps more horrifyingly, where they went right. Assassins is a concept musical, perhaps the ultimate example of the genre, here presented without a foundation strong enough to prevent it from collapsing in on itself.
Responsible for that is director Joe Mantello, whose musical work (including A Man of No Importance and Wicked) insists meaning and sense be checked with audience members' hats and coats. Unwilling or unable to invest his musicals with the same naturalism-embracing qualities he brings to his plays (Take Me Out, Mantello's Tony-winning success, is an excellent example of him in his element), he instead relies heavily on gimmicks. Susan Hilferty's excellent costumes work in Mantello's favor instead of against it, but Mantello is too willing to let the set (Robert Brill's budget-conscious but not unattractive shooting gallery) and lights (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer) do his work for him.
Here, Mantello is eminently preoccupied with just getting from point A to point B. Every musical number past the first ("Everybody's Got the Right") feels like an intrusion, particularly dangerous given Sondheim's aversion to extraneous songs. Despite being nicely orchestrated (by Michael Starobin) and conducted (by Paul Gemignani), Assassins's vaudeville of star turns and ensemble numbers capturing the assassins' anger, isolation, and rejection through near-folk songs has little dramatic impact here.
That requires intimacy, something the show's venue, Studio 54, doesn't make easy. Mantello's Assassins is never the suffocating, inescapable experience it needs to be, particularly in the songs, which are at best indifferently staged by Jonathan Butterell (of Nine and Fiddler on the Roof infamy). Yet these problems vanish in Weidman's book scenes; Mantello handles them extremely capably, finding the focus and clarity that every musical number painfully lacks. (The war between the scenes and the songs is more compelling than any of the numerous gunshots fired during the show.)
These scenes, driven by the performers, offer a tempting hint of what this Assassins might have been. Michael Cerveris's booth is a satisfying creation, James Barbour brings an understated intensity to Czolgosz, and Mary Catherine Garrison and Becky Ann Baker find and nicely develop the eerie charms of "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore. The others are a bit more uneven: Marc Kudisch seems miscast as the Proprietor, challenged by the music (unusual for him), and not always able to balance the role's charm with its demonic tendencies; Jeffrey Kuhn fails to make potential Roosevelt assassin Giuseppe Zangara an invigorating presence; and Denis O'Hare and Mario Cantone so overplay Guiteau and potential Nixon assassin Samuel Byck that their performances approach parody.
It's Neil Patrick Harris, in two roles, who makes the strongest impression. He not only plays the Balladeer, who shows up to translate the assassins' accomplishments into the popular vernacular of folk music, but also Lee Harvey Oswald, who proves a lynchpin of modern history, for the assassins and for us. His major scene, which occurs near the end of the play, is the production's most harrowing and effective.
He's coerced, by Booth and the others, into committing his violent act through much the same language the Proprietor uses in the opening number. Watching Harris's face slowly twist into the recognition and the acceptance of their ideas, and seeing him decide to alter a national consciousness for these reasons, makes Oswald's needs - and the other assassins' - feel their most terrifyingly human.
But Assassins needs these qualities from beginning to end; the characters
must be more than the grotesquerie of historical waxworks Mantello has
devised. To quote the Proprietor, "Everybody's got the right to their
dreams," but those longing for a triumphal Broadway bow for Assassins are
those most likely to see their dreams unfulfilled.