If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Sondheim’s “Assassins” Revived at Yale Rep
Difficult subject matter has never stopped Stephen Sondheim as works like “Sweeney Todd” and “Pacific Overtures” can attest. The rare revival of his “Assassins” at Yale Rep, which had its off-Broadway premiere in 1991 with a Broadway revival in 2004, demonstrates once again the fearlessness of America’s greatest living composer. It seems fitting that this challenging musical would be selected for a run at the always adventurous Yale Repertory Theatre.
With book by John Weidman and music and lyrics by Sondheim, “Assassins” looks at the men and women who attempted, successfully or not, to assassinate presidents of the United States. Set in a carnival shooting gallery, the musical (played without intermission) follows a revue style format as a barker introduces John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme among others. As they convey their sad stories, we are offered personal glimpses into delusion, madness and rather twisted versions of the American Dream.
The score is one of Sondheim’s toughest and varied, ranging from a music hall ditty for one killer and a folksy ballad for another. At Yale, director James Bundy has a superb cast of actors who handle the difficult music with ease. Chief among these are Dylan Frederick, who plays the Balladeer narrator and then smoothly segues into a heartbreaking Lee Harvey Oswald. Stephen DeRosa is a ball of madcap energy as Charles Guiteau (James Garfield’s assassin) and Lauren Molina as Fromme and Julia Murney as Sara Jane Moore (both attempted and failed to kill Gerald Ford) bring humor and pathos to their roles. Lucas Dixon also makes for a sad-eyed John Hinckley (Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin) sharing a duet with Molina on Sondheim’s melodic ballad, “Unworthy of your Love”.
In the end, however, it’s very hard to embrace these characters, to feel anything besides disgust for them. And that’s probably very much Sondheim’s point. The composer dares you to deny them their own dreams, to look away even as all of them turn their guns directly to the audience. This stunning moment, by the way, would be hard to watch even if the Newtown tragedy still didn’t seem so fresh in our minds.
Technically, the Rep delivers once again with its precise lighting design (Yi Zhao), scenery (Riccardo Hernandez), costumes (Ilona Somogyi), sound (Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts) and projections (Michael Commendatore). In all, there is great Sondheim technique and vision to be sure, but little heart, little to make you care. It’s a musical to be admired not loved. And one I really don’t need to see again.
“Assassins” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through April 8. For further information call the theatre box office at: 203.7 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.