“It takes a lot of men to make a gun.” The Gun Song
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, has staged more than 30 Stephen Sondheim productions, more than any other regional theater in America. Most are well known, like Company, Gypsy, and Into the Woods. Assassins, which premiered Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizon in 1991, was revived in a Broadway production by Roundabout in 2004, and most recently was seen in the 2017 season of Encores! Off-Center in New York, will probably be familiar to loyal Sondheim fans. Others will be discovering this musical for the first time. With gun violence now in the headlines, a show where guns are pointed at the audience is certainly unsettling. (This is especially true in Signature’s intimate MAX theater.) Yet Sondheim was on to something here, a production that is destined to spark serious and intense discussions afterwards.
Unlike the gunmen in mass shootings who target as many people as possible, the assassins portrayed in this musical have just one target – the president of the United States. Some were successful, others were not, but still made headlines. Two triumphed, perhaps even beyond their wildest imaginations, and actually altered the course of history. What might have happened if John Wilkes Booth had not shot and killed Abraham Lincoln in 1865? Or if Lee Harvey Oswald had not assassinated John F. Kennedy?
The opening finds the assassins lining up like actors in a carnival, introduced by the Balladeer (Sam Ludwig). Besides Booth and Oswald, this rouges’ gallery includes: Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield; Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley; Giuseppe Zangara, who targeted FDR; Samuel Byck, who had Richard Nixon in his sights; John Hinckley, Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jody Foster; and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, and Sara Jane Moore, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, both turning their attention to Gerald Ford.
What goes on in the mind of a killer, particularly one who goes after such a high profile target? There are no definitive answers, but we do learn a lot about this group of killers. Booth is perhaps the best fleshed out, and the most disturbing, particularly with such an unnerving performance by Vincent Kempski. Not only does Booth attempt to justify his crime, but like the devil, he pushes others, particularly a weak-minded Oswald (Ludwig), to follow his descent into hell. No one here needs much of a shove, since each potential killer is delusional, living on the fringes of society, and out for vengeance.
The two women bond and inject some comic relief. Rachel Zampelli is terrific as the gullible Fromme, while Tracy Lynn Olivera as Moore seems more in control but just as misdirected in her beliefs. As the disgruntled Guiteau, who wrongly believed he was never repaid for getting Garfield elected, Bobby Smith maintains the wild-eyed look of a religious fanatic. As he slowly ascends a lighted staircase representing the gallows, he says he committed the murder “for someone up there.”
These murderers – successful and aspiring – should be repugnant, but there are brief flashes – very brief – of humanity. When Hinckley (Evan Casey) strums the guitar and sings “Unworthy of Young Love” to Foster, he seems like any other heartbroken male mourning unrequited love. But when Zampelli joins in professing her love for Manson, those sweet feelings turn sour.
“Another National Anthem” is perhaps the most sobering song in the production. Each member of this assassin group adds their voice to the chorus, explaining their motivations. “I did it to make them listen to Charlie…” “I did it cause my belly was on fire…” “I did it to prove to her my everlasting love…” “I did it because no one cared about the poor man’s pain…” Who hasn’t had such feelings? Why do some take it to the next level, picking up a gun to go after the person seen as being responsible for such injustice?
Assassins doesn’t attempt to answer that question.
Top photo: Evan Casey (John Hinckley), Rachel Zampelli (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme), Bobby Smith (Charles Guiteau), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Sara Jane Moore), Vincent Kempski (John Wilkes Booth), Lawrence Redmond (Leon Czolgosz), Ian McEuen (Giuseppe Zangara), Sam Ludwig (Lee Harvey Oswald) and Christopher Bloch (Sam Byck) Photo by Christopher Mueller
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