When mischievous merriment intersects with immorality, the results can be marvelously maddening.
I am convinced that Sondheim’s legendary wordplay would have made that less clunky but no less unsettling. Welcome to Stephen Sondheim’s most ambitious and unusual work, “Assassins,” now playing at Herndon’s NextStop Theatre.
Preset down center in the intimate black box theatre sits a display of handguns–shiny things of all caliber and size as if one were shopping for lighting fixtures. High above on the back wall, as if a line of hunting trophies, are the faces of eight men, several of whom are recognizable.
… it bursts onstage memorably with the superb cast at NextStage.
The firearms are passed around like candy in the opening moments as we meet the notorious stars of the show, replete with a rollicking carnival opening by the Proprietor, (Mackenzie Newbury) a sultry barker replete with patriotic garb who gathers and dispenses the articles of law and disorder. In the opening “Everybody’s Got The Right” featuring the alluring Proprietor and full company, the sharp, semi-melodic strains of Sondheim’s music blend with the eerie topic.
In the intimacy of this theater, they are brandished with an offhandedness that’s unsettling. At some point, you will find yourself staring down a gun barrel poised within a few feet of your face. Of course, mere mortals are not the targets of the misbegotten characters who populate “Assassins.” Their sights are set on bigger game: the person inhabiting the Oval Office when their misery, mental illness or anger reached a violent peak
For trivia games and historical perspective, they are: John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangara, Charles Guiteau, Lee Harvey Oswald, Samuel Byck, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sara Jane Moore and most recently, John Hinckley who attempted the assassin of President Reagan. Let the slay begin!
Sondheim’s show debuted on Broadway in 1990 to wild anticipation and even more divergent takes. It only ran for 73 performances, and a London run a few years later only made about the same mark. High profile murders just don’t seem to be mainstream, though they hold a certain short-term fascination. Yet it bursts onstage memorably with the superb cast at NextStage.
Their wish to inscribe their names in the history books–to be somebody–that drives so many of the would-be assassins is evident, and gun violence is an ever more prevalent blight. But, as directed with an easy grasp of its black humor by Director Jay D. Brock, the production never attempts to force-feed us any relevance. There’s no need for theatrical intervention-not with material from frequent Sondheim collaborator John Weidman that allows its fascinating flawed characters to speak and sing so urgently for themselves.
Those dreams vary for each killer we meet. Some are fired by political ideals, like John Wilkes Booth (the magnetic and proudly vainglorious Bobby Libby); the naïve anarchist Leon Czolgosz, portrayed with an earnest vulnerability by Daniel Westbrook; the Depression-era firebrand Giuseppe Zangara (a distraught Brice Guerriere); and the outcast Lee Harvey Oswald (a confused John Sygar, who also lends smooth vocals as the Ballateer), later taunted into taking action by the commanding ghost of Booth.
Others are simply fascinated by the cult of celebrity: the stalker John Hinckley, (a mousy, almost sympathetic Mikey Cafarelli) clutching a photo of Jodie Foster as if it was a religious relic, or the unkempt Samuel Byck (the outstanding Alex Zavistovich), ranting with a grim relentlessness into a tape recorder to explain his actions–all while in a Santa Claus outfit.
And then there are the sad souls like Charles Guiteau, with a basso profundo, played with a marvelously puckish energy by Andrew Adelsberger, outraged when he was denied an ambassadorship by President Garfield; Lynette Fromme, a.k.a. Squeaky, a realistic flower child played by Jaclyn Young, whose adoration of Charles Manson is delivered as a spoiled teenager bemoaning a lost teddy bear; and her companion in delusion, the unhinged Sara Jane Moore (a hilariously funny Katie McManus) adding much needed straight comedy.
The technical elements of the show conspired to bring the world of each assassin to life. Set design by JD Madsen was utilitarian and harsh; the central bull’s eye target dead center told it all. Kristina Martin’s costumes evoked rather than followed each period. Music director Bryan Lilley brought the voices and instruments together in a balanced blend of sound. On head microphones, all sounded naturally chilling when singing.
The ethereal feeling is highlighted in the song “November 22, 1963–The Assassins” reliving that infamous day, has the spirits of the past assassins coming together in a choral coaxing, murderers urging Oswald to join their group.
Lock and load at Nextstop.
Advisory: The show contains gunshots, adult language and adult themes.
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes without an intermission.
“Assassins” is presented by the NextStop Theatre Company, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon VA, from October 19 to November 12, 2017. For tickets to other performances in the 2017-18 season, call the information line at (703) 471-4494 or here.