Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s controversial musical, ASSASSINS, is back to remind us how violent these United States are. This time out New Repertory Theatre is assembling the shooting gallery, playing through Oct. 26th appropriately enough, at the Arsenal Center.
The musical is a conundrum. The historical context is fascinating. The message that someone can make a name for him/herself by assassination is chilling and the songs are gorgeous—but perverse in the mouths of these evildoers. “Everybody’s Got the Right [to a Dream]” is one of Sondheim’s loveliest but the dream, in this case, involves a gun and a president.
When ASSASSINS debuted, audiences were shocked at what seemed like a glorification of violence. A quarter of a century later, I’m horrified to say, people are more than familiar with news of mass murder ( from children killing their classmates to homegrown and foreign terrorism to the “collateral damage” from drone and missile attacks we hear about every day on the news). Now ASSASSINS seems more of a cautionary tale—and sad, solid evidence that our country has always had a fascination with violence.
The shadow of recent history casts a frightening resonance on the musical that it didn’t have before. Most surprising is the vignette about the failed presidential assassin, Sam Byck, who planned to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House way before 9-11. Ironically, after the musical’s first disappointing outing, Sondheim and Weidman were ready to try it again. Time had passed. Backers were found and they were scheduled to open in November of 2001. Then 9-11 happened and they didn’t.
Director Jim Petosa’s straightforward production unfolds on a giant American flag (set design by Kamilla Kurmenbekova) whose stars all display black bullet holes, repeated in carnival proprietor/cheerleader Benjamin Evett’s patriotic coat (by Chelsea Kerl).
Music director Matthew Stern’s ensemble delivers the songs with conviction and humor. Standout performances include Mark Linehan’s commanding Booth (whose final prayer is especially, surprisingly touching), Brad Peloquin’s quirky, almost childlike assassin and Kevin Patrick Martin’s desperate, lonely gunman. Their seemingly innocent, lilting trio (“All you have to do is crook your little finger…”) morphs into a barbershop quartet (by adding a female assassin) becoming, despite its gentle tune, passionless instruction for a shooting.
Also affecting are Harrison Bryan (although his over the top Italian accent kept me from making out some of the lyrics and maybe it’s just because I saw SWEENEY TODD a week ago, but he sounds a lot like Pirelli, Sweeney’s nemesis), McCaela Donovan and Paula Langton as inept, ineffectual wannabes, Casey Tucker as a proud, determined Emma Goldman and Peter S. Adams as the wacky Sam Byck (although placing him at the far end of the stage each time meant we had difficulty (and I was in the center section) hearing all of his rant.
Best of all, in a tour de force is Evan Gambardella, first as the balladeer, there at the start to chronicle the first assassination, then as a confused, reluctant Lee Harvey Oswald, entreated by all the other assassins, to give them historical importance. When he gives himself over to his brothers/sisters in arms, we feel sorry for him. Even if you don’t subscribe to the lone gunman theory, the Oswald segment works as theater and Gambardella creates a character you won’t soon forget.