Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

AssassinsHits the Bullseye
ACT Theatre/5th Avenue Theatre

Review by David Edward Hughes

Brandon O'Neill, Nick Desantis, and Frederick Hagreen
Photo by Mark Kitaoka
Assassins, one of the most rarely staged and controversial musicals by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, is receiving a tremendous co-production by ACT Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre, housed in ACT's Falls Theatre venue. ACT's new Artistic Director John Langs heightens the creep factor of the show without turning it into Grand Guignol, and has recruited a cast of heavy hitters to portray a deeply disturbed assortment of miscreants.

When this show first appeared for a very limited Off-Broadway run 1990, we were heading into the Gulf War, a bleak and dark time. Now, as we mull a United States of America that might end up being run by a mad person, the title of the show's final song, "Something Just Broke" (in which citizens recall where they were when news of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's shooting and assassination was announced), it gives us pause to reflect that when that something broke, it never could be restored or repaired.

The literate, darkly comic book by John Weidman, based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., uses the premise of a skewed carnival shooting setting to produce a revue-style portrayal of the men and women who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate several presidents of the United States. The Sondheim score, highlighting his musical pastiche style in a way he hadn't since Follies, cannily reflects the popular music of the eras depicted. From John Wilkes Booth assassinating Abraham Lincoln to Lee Harvey Oswald killing JFK and beyond, the perverted parade of lunatics are portrayed in Assassins with gusto and fearlessness.

An inviting, hucksterish ghoul of a carnival Proprietor (an inspired turn by Nick DeSantis) welcomes the rogues gallery of assassins and wannabes, advising "Everybody's got the right to be happy" and "C'mon and kill a president." John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin, is first up, his tale told in part by a young, engaging Balladeer (Nathan Brockett) whose true identity is revealed later. Louis Hobson's wild-eyed Booth is peerless in his pomposity, which may come from being a failed actor. Hobson is never better than when he is cast against the standard leading man mold and given something gritty to do, and with his vocal chops well employed here as well, he triumphs. Matthew Wolfe, an ace old-style song and dance man is nearly unrecognizable assuming the role of Samuel Byck, a beer-swilling, Bernstein-loving loon dressed in a Santa suit, who attempted to hijack a plane flying out of Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport. He intended to crash into the White House with the hope of killing President Richard Nixon. Wolfe nails Byck's two substantial monologues veering from the oddly comic to pathetic to chilling with smooth precision.

Less remembered by time, but vividly depicted in consummate performances are Leon Czolgosz (Brandon O'Neill), assassin of President William McKinley, Guiseppe Zangara (John Coons), attempted assassin of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Charles Guiteau (Richard Gray), assassin of President James Garfield. Each gets a featured number which range from "How I Saved Roosevelt," seen from the perspective of the onlookers, to "The Ballad of Czolgosz," and "The Ballad of Guiteau," in which Gray's usual crowd-pleasing buoyant persona is ideally juxtaposed with his chilling cake-walk to the gallows. Sarah Jane Moore (a fearlessly funny yet very well-modulated turn by Kendra Kassebaum), attempted Gerald Ford assassin, joins in on perhaps the most spine-tingling number in the score, "The Gun Song." Kassebaum also shares well-crafted scenes with another 5th Avenue vet, Laura Griffith, far from romantic heroine land here as the totally bonkers Charlie Manson acolyte Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme who, like Moore, also tried to kill Gerald Ford (a very lucky man, it seems). Griffith gets to share my favorite Assassins number "Unworthy of Your Love," a very Carpenters-like duet, with Frederick Hagreen as John Hinckley, the failed Ronald Reagan assassin who was driven to the act due to pathological obsessions with the film Taxi Driver and its youthful co-star Jodie Foster. Hagreen is almost too true to life in this role, and he relishes it.

Clearly, Langs was the right director for this intellectual, absorbing, and sometime alienating show. There is no full ensemble backing up the assassins as in prior productions, so this die-hard cast deserves extra points for slipping in and out of their main characters so adroitly to become us, the faces in the crowd. Trina Mills' choreography is of a sort rarely achieved well, but Ms. Mills does it by creating character movement for characters who, parenthetically, don't dance. Brian Sidney Bembridge's setting is an eerie, uncluttered sort of Twilight Zone for assassins, and is at one with his own expert lighting design, while Melanie Taylor Burgess' costumes encapsulate and recall to perfection the varied styles and eras represented.

Grim and powerful to the end, Assassins is the darkest of all Sondheim musicals, which is going some from the man who gave us people baked into pies in Sweeney Todd and the madness of love in Passion. Make a special effort to see this—your high schoolers won't be doing it, folks! My rating MTD 4 stars: Magic to Do.

ACT and the 5th Avenue Theatre's joint production of Assassins performs at ACT, 7th and Union downtown Seattle, through May 8th, 2016. For tickets or information visit the ACT online at or the 5th Avenue Theatre online at