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A CurtainUp Review

Everybody's got the right to their dreams. . . C'mere and shoot a President.
--- Proprietor

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Mary Catherine Garrison, Denis O'Hare, Michael Cerveris, James Barbour & Becky Ann Baker
Maybe John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim should have invited representatives of the CIA, FBI and Defense Department to the 1990 Playwrights Horizon premiere of Assassins. After all, Samuel Byk one of the musical's title characters planned to crash a hijacked plane into Richard Nixon's White House long before similar plots aimed at ordinary citizens permeated the "chatter" overheard from Osama Bin Laden's fanatical followers.

Sondheim's nightmarish exploration of men and women for whom assassination was a means for grabbing hold of the American Dream met with so-so critical response -- a response unmitigated by the clever lyrics and accessible Americana flavored score. Consequently, you could hardly expect the Beltway crowd, even the whistle blowing Richard Clarke, to be gung-ho to see a show lacking the momentum for a Broadway transfer.

It's taken over a dozen years for Assassins to finally get a full-scale Broadway production. Though rampant mass terrorism makes the musical's nine assassins seem almost tame, this is still a disturbing concept that explains these killers' and would-be killers' motives in Psychology 101 terms. If not on a par with Sondheim's darkest but greatest musical take on the murderous instinct, Sweeney Todd, it is nevertheless as riveting as it is repelling. The riveting factor is pumped up by Joe Mantello's flashy, astutely cast production

Robert Brill has constructed a forebodingly dark scaffold with a sky-high staircase that suggests an abandoned amusement park roller coaster. To bring the assassins who have haunted our history together and stitch their individual stories into a musical patchwork, the scaffolding is fronted by a shooting gallery whose proprietor, a terrific and surprisingly bald and gold-toothed Mark Kudish, beckons one and all to "C'mere and shoot a President."

Once the assorted misfits and injustice collectors assemble they join the Proprietor in tone setting opening salvo "Everybody's Got the Right." From there it's on to a ghostly parade of losers who present their stories like so many carnival acts, with the Proprietor remaining on the sideline as an occasional commentator. The main narrator, however, is a strolling Balladeer, who turns out to be one of the gang of shooters when he morphs into the character of Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris deftly handling both roles, though it would have been nice if the otherwise smart costume designer Susan Hilferty had given him more of a balladeer look).

It's hard to pick out my favorite among these sadly demented losers. Certainly Michael Cerveris is a dynamic John Wilkes Booth who often hovers around the proceedings as a sort of recruiter of potential assassins. And James Barbour's powerful baritone invigorates the socialist Leon Czolgosz who killed President William McKinley.

Over-the-top honors go hands down to Mario Cantone and Denis O'Hare. Cantone's brand of comedy is custom made for the manic Sam Byk who taped long hate rants and tried to crash a 747 into the Nixon White House. O'Hare, as the glittery eyed Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau should get a special award for being the only cast member to actually climb that reach for the sky staircase. Actually, he doesn't just walk but dances and prances to his own accompaniment of snappy snatches of gospel and the stairs lead him, not to a steeplechase ride, but the gallows.

For truly wacky comedy, there are two ladies who can't shoot straight -- Mary Catherine Garrison as Charles Manson disciple Lynette "Squaky" Fromme; and Becky Ann Baker as an even more deliciously ditzy dame, Sara Jane Moore, who aims bullets at her fried chicken and President Gerald Ford with equally hilarious ineptness. Garrison and Alexander Gemignani, the Jody Obsessed John Hinckley at one point join in a melodic ode to Foster and Mansen called "Unworthy of Your Love." Besides this pop number, the score resonates with a mix of musical genres, including spirituals and John Philip Sousa marches.

The primary cast is most effectively supported by a versatile ensemble. Like all the assassins, they get a chance to shine by themselves in a charmingly choreographed number called "How I Saved Roosevelt." The so-called new song, "Something Just Broke" is new only because it was added after the Playwrights Horizon production. It has previously been used, as in the Los Angeles production we reviewed (the review). What is new and noteworthy here is the placement of the orchestra in boxes at either side of the stage which makes for a sumptuous sound; also Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's painterly lighting which works as a a moody character in its own right.

If the announced one week extension of this limited run turns out to be the first of several, Assassins will still be playing when the Beltway Republicans head this way for the Presidential convention. Whatever your politics, if you appreciate the musical theater at its most daring and inventive, this is a must see. To borrow from Mr. Sondheim what he so cunningly borrowed from Arthur Miller, any Stephen Sondheim musical is one to which "attention must be paid."

Scroll to the end of the production notes, past the song list, for a capsule who's who of the assassins.

Assassins Book by John Weidman
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Joe Mantello
Cast: Marc Kudisch (Proprietor), James Barbour (Leon Czolgosz, who killed President William McKinley), Alexander Gemignani (John Hinckley, who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan), Denis O'Hare (Charles Guiteau, who killed President James Garfield), Jeffrey Kuhn (Giuseppe Zangara, who tried to kill President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt), Mario Cantone (Samuel Byck, who tried to kill President Richard Nixon), Mary Catherine Garrison (Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, who tried to kill President Gerald Ford), Becky Ann Baker (Sara Jane Moore, who tried to kill Mr. Ford), Michael Cerveris (John Wilkes Booth, who killed President Abraham Lincoln) and Neil Patrick Harris (Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, who killed President John F. Kennedy).
Musical Direction: Paul Gemignani
Musical Staging: Jonathan Butterell.
Orchestrations: Michael Starobi n
Set Design:Robert Brill
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty;
Lighting Design: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Running time: 1 hour and 55 minutes, without an intermission
Roundabout Theater Company atStudio 54, 254 West 54th Street
From 3/31/04 to 7/04/04 -- extended a second time to 8/01/04--and again to 9/12/04; opening 4/22/04
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2:00PM. Early-to-Bed Series: Saturday, May 1st, Tuesday, May 4th and Friday, May 7th. Ticket prices range from $36.25-$91.25.

After being extended to 9/12, lagging sales led to a 7/18/04 closing announcement at which time it will have played 26 previews and 101 performances at that time.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 28th performance

  • Everybody's Got the Right/ Proprietor, Czolgosz, Guiteau, Fromme, Byck, Booth, Zangara,Hinckley, Moore
  • The Ballad of Booth/Balladeer, Booth
  • How I Saved Roosevelt/ Zangara, Ensemble
  • The Gun Song/Czolgosz, Booth, Guiteau, Moore
  • The Ballad of Czolgosz/Balladeer, Ensemble
  • Unworthy of Your Love/Hinkley, Fromme
  • The Ballad of Guiteau/Guiteau, Balladeer
  • Another National Anthem/ Proprietor, Czolgosz, Booth, Hinckley,Fromme, Guiteau, Zangara, Moore, Byck, Balladeer
  • Something Just Broke/Ensemble
  • Everybody's Got the Right/ Moore, Byck, Czolgosz, Zangara, Fromme,Hinckley, Oswald, Guiteau, Booth

JOHN WILKES BOOTH (1838-65). Well-known actor and ardent supporter of the Confederacy who after first plotting to kidnap Lincoln, shot him on April 14, 1865, during a performance at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.

LEON CZOLGOSZ (1873- 1901). Son of poor Polish immigrants who was a child laborer and became interested in socialism. He deemed President William McKinley an enemy of the people and shot him on Septemer 6, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. McKinley died eight days later and Czolgosz was electrocuted within two months.

CHARLES GUITEAU (1841-82). An emotionally unstable lawyer, evangelical preacher, writer who believed President James Garfield, whom he had supported, should name him the ambassador to France. He shot Garfield on July 2, 1881 at the Washington, D.C., train station. The president died 2 1/2 months later and Guiteau went to the gallows the following year.

GIUSEPPE ZANGARA (1900-33) blamed chronic stomach pains on the upper classes. While still living in Italy he plotted to kill Italian King Victor Emmanuel III. He then planned to kill Herbert Hoover and then targeted President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 15, 1933, in Miami. The bullet missed Roosevelt, but hit and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cernak. Zangarawas electrocuted in March 1933.

LEE HARVEY OSWALD (1939-63), a former Marine who became a Marxist and lived briefly in the Soviet Union. On Nov. 22, 1963, during a Dallas motorcade, he assassinated President John F. Kennedy and Gov. John Connally with a gun fired from the Texas School Book Depository where he worked. He escaped and killed a police officer, was arrested and two days later was killed by nightclub proprietor Jack Ruby. Conspiracy theories prevail even though the Warren Commission ruled that Oswald was the sole assassin.

SAMUEL BYCK (1930-74) was an unemployed, divorced salesman who picketed the White House in a Santa Claus suit and sent tapes to celebrities outlining his plan to hijack a plane and crash it into the Richard Nixon's White House. On Feb. 22, 1974, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport he killed a guard, forced his way onto a Delta flight for Atlanta, killed the co-pilot and wounded the pilot. The plane never left the ground and Byck was shot by guards and then killed himself.

LYNETTE "SQUEAKY" FROMME (1948). A devoted member of the Manson Family cult. She attempted to kill President Gerald Ford on Sept. 5, 1975, outside a hotel in Sacramento, Calif. but there was no ammunition in the chamber of her gun and she was captured on the spot. She is serving a life sentence.

JOHN HINCKLEY JR. (1955), a distrubed loner who became obsessed with actress Jodie Foster. To impress her he plotted a presidential assassination, first stalking Jimmy Carter and on March 30, 1981, outside the Washington (D.C.) Hilton, shooting and wounding President Ronald Reagan and three others. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital in Washington. He was recently granted unsupervised visits with his parents.

SARA JANE MOORE (1930) had multiple careers, political interests and husbands. She was recruited as an FBI informant but blew her conver. Sept. 22, 1975, outside a hotel in San Francisco, she tried to reestablish her radical connections by attempting and failing to assassinate President Gerald Ford. She is serving a life sentence.
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