So, eight assassins walk into a bar, six men and two women. All are fabulous singers, skilled at immersing themselves in their roles; dedicated to their craft; and one is a smashing dancer. Out of this group, who will steal the show?
This is a show that is rich in detail, voices, and stagecraft and is a lovely lead-in to Signature’s 30th year.
The women. Yes, the women. “Assassins” does have a grim relevance given the threats and divisions and hatred permeating our lives in America, and it works oddly well as a revue of presidential killers and would-be killers. The men are almost uniformly grim and beaten down, or grim and seriously disturbed, or both, and luckily for us Rachel Zampelli as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Tracy Lynn Olivera as Sara Jane Moore just bring the crazy completely into the theatre, and in a good way. They provide some needed humanity and comedy; they may be just as deadly serious as the men in their plan to assassinate a president (Gerald Ford), but in a weird way, their motives are more caretaking (even if the ultimate object of that caring is Charles Manson, Squeaky wasn’t looking for personal gain of any kind).
Which sort of brings up another question—of all the motives, Squeaky Fromme’s is the least self-centered; is that a matter of the female nature or the socialization indoctrination process females are subject to? But I digress.
There’s also the very special moment when Zampelli and Olivera both miss Gerald Ford, and Olivera runs after him shouting, “Bang, bang.” It just fits them both so well.
Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics, and John Weidman who wrote the book (based on an Idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr) don’t glorify this posse of the disenfranchised and disenchanted, but do offer up a sly sendup of the American virtues of being self-made and independent. Beginning with John Wilkes Booth (a glorious, dark, driven Vincent Kempski), who wanted to slay the beast that, in his view, tore apart his country (and maybe because of bad reviews too) he leads us through a series of monologues and musical numbers that highlight each person’s motives.
John Hinkley is portrayed by a despondent Evan Casey, and he and Zampelli have an imagined meeting that ends up with a rather lovely duet, “Unworthy of Your Love.” And Bobby Smith as Charles Guiteau (he killed President James Garfield because Garfield didn’t pay a political debt he imagined) has a wonderfully upbeat song and dance on his own personal stairway to heaven, aka, the steps to the gallows. You can just see the angels beckoning him onwards and upwards.
Sam Ludwig as the Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald seems the sanest (we don’t realize he’s Oswald until the last scene), but once all the assassins unite in the book repository to urge him to make his death memorable (he was going to kill himself), the absolute glee that comes over him is almost infectious.
All of the cast does superb work at portraying the chilling spiral into moral and mental madness; when the stand together, facing the audience and holding their guns, the deadness in their eyes is like looking into the abyss.
The rest of the cast includes Christopher Bloch as Samuel Byck (attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon); Ian McEuen as Giuseppe Zangara (tried for President Franklin D. Roosevelt); Lawrence Redmond as Leon Czolgosz (he murdered President William McKinley); and Kurt Boehm as President Ford, the proprietor of the bar who supplied all the guns, and as part of the ensemble.
The ensemble includes Jimmy Mavrikes, Christopher Mueller, Nova Y. Payton, Christopher Michael Richardson, Maria Rizzo, and Jack St. Pierre. Swings include Declan Fennell, Harrison Smith, Kylie Clare Smith and Dylan Toms.
Maria Rizzo also plays Emma Goldman, who has a chance meeting with Leon Czologosz. Her Goldman is memorable—in just a few minutes she conveys the conviction and grace of a fighter for worker’s rights.
“Assassins” is directed by Eric Schaeffer; his vision includes a worn, very tall, forbidding wall of wood that encapsulates the stage. It’s very height seems to weigh down on these desperate people and emphasizes their smallness in a cold world. The set design is by James Kronzer, who also places a crumbling, ghostly replica of the presidential box at Ford’s Theater anchoring stage left.
Musical Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch does a superb job of music direction, leading eight musicians up in the galley.
This is a show that is rich in detail, voices, and stagecraft and is a lovely lead-in to Signature’s 30th year. If you’re in the mood for an evening of crazy that can lead to some serious reflection of the effect of gun culture on America, you won’t want to miss this.
Advisory: Gunshots, adult language, assassinations.
Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.
“Assassins” runs through September 29, 2019 at Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA. For more information, please click here.