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Off Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by David Hurst - November 14, 2021

Ethan Slater and Cast
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Perhaps no other production postponed by the pandemic has been as feverishly anticipated as that of Classic Stage Company's revival of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. With the show's reputation, CSC's impressive cast of Broadway stars, and the imprimatur of Sondheim's genius, it's been the hottest ticket in town for more than a year and a half. Unfortunately, although every production of Assassins is worth seeing, director John Doyle's flaccid and uninspired staging is littered with problems that threaten to overshadow the excellent work of a game cast who need a steadier hand than what Doyle is providing here.

A contemporary masterpiece whose critical stature continues to grow with each subsequent viewing, Assassins remains perhaps the most shocking musical ever written. Set in a fairground shooting gallery, Weidman's breathtaking libretto and Sondheim's soaring American-pastiche score bring together the nine individuals who have killed, or attempted to kill, American presidents, allowing them to interact with each other across time in a macabre club of disgruntled, disaffected and disturbed individuals. Their reasons for doing what they did are many, but the outcomes of their actions are all the same. The show builds to a devastating climax in which John Wilkes Booth cajoles Lee Harvey Oswald to his infamous immortality, with the rest of the assassins hoping Oswald's act will give their lives the legitimacy they crave.

Anchoring CSC's revival with his magnificent voice, as he did in the 2017 Encores! Off-Center revival directed by Anne Kauffman, is Steven Pasquale, whose vivid portrayal of John Wilkes Booth is spellbinding. Joining him are: Will Swenson as a hilariously fey Charles Guiteau; Brandon Uranowitz as a heartbreaking Leon Czolgosz; Wesley Taylor as frightening Giuseppe Zangara; Ethan Slater as The Balladeer and an understated Lee Harvey Oswald; Andy Grotelueschen as the unhinged Samuel Byck; Tavi Gevinson as a disarming Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme; Judy Kuhn (in a rare comic turn) as frustrated housewife Sara Jane Moore; Adam Chanler-Berat as an appropriately withdrawn John Hinckley, Jr.; Eddie Cooper as The Proprietor; and Bianca Horn as a no-nonsense Emma Goldman. The hardworking (and instrument-playing) ensemble, who fill in all the smaller roles, consists of Brad Giovanine, Whit K. Lee, Rob Morrison and Katrina Yaukey.

But, as accomplished as the cast is, minimalist director John Doyle doesn't seem to know what to do with them in terms of his staging. The large, thrust stage in the three-quarter playing area feels both too bare when individuals inhabit it, and too crowded when the ensemble clutters it with marching band formations and crowd-scene milling about. The pacing varies but often feels too slow and there's a general sense of hesitancy in the air. (Perhaps the pace will tighten up over the coming weeks; the run and a recently added extension through the end of January are completely sold out.)

For some mysterious reason, Doyle has the cast wear surgical masks made out of U.S. flag fabric. They take them off, they put them back on, then they take them off again, but it's never clear why or what Doyle is trying to say with such a pretentious gesture. But the most surprising problem of this revival is the cast's fight with the musicians over volume. It's a joy hearing the show performed unamplified, but several in the cast seem to have forgotten that, without a body mic, you have to project and enunciate. And, finally, comparisons to the spectacular 2004 Roundabout revival directed by Joe Mantello will be inevitable when the 8mm Abraham Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination makes its appearance in the Presidential Seal, which is the show's only set piece. Mantello used the film clip to far more dazzling effect when it was projected onto the t-shirt of Neil Patrick Harris who played Oswald—an image which will never be forgotten by anyone lucky enough to have seen it.

Through January 29, 2022
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: