By David A. Rosenberg
Don’t get any ideas. “Assassins,” the Stephen Sondheim / James Lapine collaboration about the deranged men and women who tried – and, in some cases succeeded – to kill U. S. presidents is not meant as a primer, a how-to. Rather, the musical, now in an absorbing, electric production at Yale Rep, is the flip side of the American Dream, an exuberant in-your-face event that will make many uncomfortable. And not just because of the heinous crimes committed.
What composer/lyricist Sondheim and librettist Lapine uncover is the culmination of all we’ve been taught about achievement and the pursuit of happiness. If those goals are worthy for some, why not for all, including assassins? Starting in a carnival setting, with a sexy doll prize given for marksmanship, the Proprietor tempts misfits already brimming with anger and frustration.
In “Everybody’s Got the Right,” the Proprietor sings “Hey, fella/Feel like you’re a failure?/Bailiff on your tail?/You wife run off for good?/Feel misunderstood? C’mere and kill a president.” Cruel and manipulative as they are, the come-ons would be more powerful if the role of the Proprietor exuded more evil than Austin Durant gives the character.
Because of the soft opening, the evening is in danger of losing its sting. That it doesn’t is due to both the show, with its score a compendium of American music (cakewalk, soft rock, hymns, marches, ballads and a dollop of Sousa) and James Bundy’s astute direction which knows when to be satirical, when serious.
The assassins are a mixed lot. Actor John Wilkes Booth (a stalwart Robert Lenzi), the killer of Lincoln, is an egotist demanding fame and good reviews. Religious poet Charles Guiteau (an hilarious, antic Stephen DeRosa) shoots Garfield, while reclusive anarchist Leon Czolgosz (a dour P. J. Griffith) gives it to McKinley.
We also get the failed attempts: love-struck John Hinckley (Lukas Dixon), delusional Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), batty Sarah Jane Moore (Julia Murney) and a spaced-out Squeaky Fromme (Lauren Molina) who failed to kill, respectively, Reagan, F.D.R. and Ford, the latter targeted by both Moore and Fromme.
And, then, of course, there’s Lee Harvey Oswald, who has an extended scene with Booth at the show’s climax. As portrayed by a perfectly cast Dylan Frederick, Oswald is surprisingly so naïve, inscrutable and reluctant that you hope against hope his heinous killing of Kennedy would not have happened. At Yale, the scene quieted a heretofore raucous audience.
Good as the cast is, the standout is Richard R. Henry as Samuel Byck, who commandeered a jet to crash into the White House, with Nixon as the target. In a devilish, scatological screed, wearing a ridiculous Santa Claus suit, Henry is madly funny and horrifyingly sad. The last time I saw this musical, the moment was ruined by an over-the-top performance. Not this time.
Andrea Grody conducts a 13-piece orchestra that beautifully spins out Sondheim’s melodies, the gorgeous “Unworthy of Your Love,” the militaristic “Another National Anthem,” the moving “Something Just Broke,” which tells of reactions to JFK’s assassination.
Along with Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design, Yi Zhao’s lighting, Ilona Somogyi’s costumes, Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts’ sound design and Michael Commendatore’s essential projections, “Assassins” is something to see. It’s not comforting but that “every now and then the country goes a little wrong” has taken on new meaning in a world more frightened and frightening than ever before.