“Stephen Sondheim’s’ Assassins’: A Killer History Lesson”

By Brooks Appelbaum

One hates to disagree with a genius, especially when that genius is Stephen Sondheim, and he is assessing his own musical, “Assassins,” running through April 8, at Yale Repertory Theatre. Sondheim has pronounced this show his most “perfect” work, but here the word “perfect” better describes James Bundy’s direction and the production itself, rather than the music and lyrics, or -- especially -- the book, by John Weidman. It’s easy to see the allure, for Sondheim, of bringing us into the minds and motives of the nine people who have made successful or unsuccessful attempts to kill eight presidents (unaccountably, Gerald R. Ford merited two separate tries). Sondheim’s fascination with human nature’s dark side is a given, by now; we only need to think of his far more perfect piece, “Sweeney Todd,” as one example. Here, though, most of the songs lack the master’s signature sparkle, and the book, while clever in parts, and powerful at times, doesn’t provide the necessary coherence, even for a revue.

“Assassins” gives music hall numbers to the ensemble and longer sequences to most of the main characters. The sequences centered on John Wilkes Booth (a mesmerizing Robert Lenzi) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick, in an astonishing performance) are riveting, the latter proving so searing as to be almost unwatchable. However, others are overlong, though they provide some darkly comic relief.┬áThe framing device is especially compelling: the show opens at a shooting gallery at a fair, where the Proprietor seduces each would-be killer into buying a gun.

While the script is slightly jumbled, Bundy’s direction could not be sharper or more polished, beginning with his casting. All the actors have fine voices and terrific timing, and all invest completely in their roles. Julia Murney (Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to kill Gerald R. Ford), turns in a hilarious performance -- so hilarious as to unintentionally call attention to how underwritten Moore is: we learn almost nothing, here, about her motives or her madness. Stephen DeRosa, as James Garfield’s killer, Charles J. Guiteau, is directed to use what, in other shows, has come across as mugging, to great comic effect here. Lucas Dixon (John Hinckley), Lauren Molina (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme), P.J. Griffith (Leon Czolgosz), Stanley Bahorek (Giuseppe Zangara), and Richard R. Henry (Samuel Byck) are uniformly superb, as are the numerous actors who play multiple roles but are mainly the “Bystanders” responding to each assassination. Clearly, Bundy has created in his cast not only a deep understanding of history, but also a strong and crucial sense of community.

The music, though not up to my Sondheim standards, is beautifully conducted by Andrea Grody, Music Director, and played by a marvelous orchestra. And the spare set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, uses a few beautifully constructed pieces to create visually haunting spaces that go far in telling these characters’ stories. Behind these set pieces we see Michael Commendatore’s astonishing projections, which enfold us even more fully in the characters’ minds. These projections show the huge canvas of history that these men and women seek to alter. Some of them succeed in doing this, of course, but the projections ultimately bring home how tiny each character is, and how delusional, in hoping to change the world with “one little finger.”

The production dramaturgs -- Matthew Conway and Lynda A. H. Paul -- have undoubtedly done much that we, in the audience cannot see, but we can see the meticulous research that has gone into the program notes, which focus, fittingly in these times, on the details of the individual guns used in each assassination attempt. These details point out what is most chilling in Sondheim and Weidman’s script: yes, we come to know something of these people, but as the framing device and Bundy’s final image suggests, the strongest and most coherent element in the show is how owning a gun creates the illusion of power.

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