Assassins – Encores! Off-Center – New York City Center

Erin Markey and Victoria Clark in the Encores! Off-Center production of Assassins at New York City Center. Picture: Joan Marcus

Assassins, an Encores! Off-Center production, was performed at New York City Center.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Given today’s fraught political climate, it’s hard to imagine that that the powers at Encores! Off-Center didn’t have some sleepless nights about their decision to include John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins as part of this summer series.

This showcase of staged concert revivals features musicals with Off-Broadway roots; Assassins, which had a notable Broadway staging in 2004, winning five Tony Awards, actually premiered with an Off-Broadway production by Playwrights Horizons in 1990. No problem there.

The big problem, of course, is that the show burrows deeply into the undergrowth of the American psyche, investigating what through the years motivated a gallery of presidential assassins or would-be assassins, nine of them, in fact.

Hadn’t a prominent modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar less than a month ago in Central Park caused all kinds of ruckus – including protesters who stormed the stage at one point – because the assassinated Caesar was portrayed as a President Donald Trump look-alike.

Hadn’t the comedienne Kathy Griffin recently suffered what seems career-breaking repercussions after she posted online a supposedly gag photo of her holding a severed bloody Trump head?

Presidential assassination is no laughing matter. While it has no Trump-like representations, Assassins still garners laughs as well as chills and discomfort, in styles of storytelling that range from revue-like comedy to melodrama to philosophical dissertation and a score that is both as heart-clutching and as toe-tapping catchy as anything in the Sondheim canon.

The boldness hits you in the face at the very start, when a man identified as The Proprietor of what appears to be a shooting gallery sings to a prospective customer: “Hey, pal – feelin’ blue?/Don’t know what to do?/Hey, pal – I mean you/Yeah, C’mere and kill a president.” The audience laughter that greeted that line at the performance attended was pretty chilling in itself.

At any rate, whatever second thoughts may – or may not – have raced through the minds of the Encores! nabobs, we can only celebrate that they gave us a superb production of a difficult but absolutely necessary masterwork.

Expertly staged by Anne Kauffman, it was thrillingly acted and sung by a top-notch cast, studded with Tony nominees and winners, and accompanied by an ear-filling 13-member orchestra, conducted by music director Chris Fenwick.

The only problematic note came oddly enough at that very start with the off-kilter vocalising of Ethan Lipton as The Proprietor.

Nevertheless, Lipton, a downtown cabaret musician, writer and performer, gave us a taste of the man’s smarmy seductiveness.

And the score’s musicality was quickly given its full worth when Steven Pasquale stepped grandly on stage as John Wilkes Booth to continue with the deeply ironic opening number, ‘Everybody’s Got the Right (to be Happy)’.

Then, as the story of Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln unfolds, Pasquale’s indelible characterisation is matched by the accompanying commentary sung by Clifton Duncan as The Balladeer.

Booth continues to figure importantly in the piece, travelling through time to inspire or induce others to follow in his footsteps.

Among them: Leon Czolgosz (a deeply touching Shuler Hensley), a jobless Polish immigrant who shot President William McKinley in 1901; Charles Guiteau (a playfully commanding John Ellison Conlee), an aggrieved writer and lawyer, who shot President James A. Garfield in 1881 and went to his hanging reciting the poem “I am going to the Lordy”, which becomes one of the show’s jauntiest numbers; Giuseppe Zangara (a compelling Alex Brightman), who failed in his 1933 assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but took the life of the mayor of Chicago; and Samuel Byck (a frenetic Danny Wolohan), who in an extended scarily comic monologue tape records a message to an apparent idol, Leonard Bernstein, detailing his aborted plan in 1974 to hijack a plane, ram into the White House and kill President Richard Nixon.

Others include John Hinckley, Jr. (Steven Boyer), a young man who in 1981 wounded President Ronald Reagan to get some attention from the movie star he was obsessed with, Jodie Foster; Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (Erin Markey), a follower of the murderous Charles Manson cult, who made a failed attempt on the life of Gerald Ford in 1975; and Sara Jane Moore (Victoria Clark), a serial divorcee and single mother, who three weeks after Fromme failed, tried unsuccessfully as well to kill Ford.

When Boyer’s Hinckley shakes off his young-man sullenness to sing about his love for Foster, the emo-style ballad that Sondheim has created, ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, is genuinely moving, and when Markey’s Fromme joins in, it becomes an enthralling duet.

A total contrast of mood are the scenes in which Markey’s deadpan Fromme and Clark’s chronically befuddled Moore get together to chat it up and eventually become hapless partner assassins. It’s screwball comedy of a high order. Indeed, Weidman’s book scenes are as inspired as Sondheim’s score.

Last but hardly least to make the scene is Lee Harvey Oswald, murderer of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In the Dallas book depository from which Oswald took aim, Weidman has him confronted by Booth and eventually the other assassins. They talk Oswald out of a plan to commit suicide and instead into shooting Kennedy. It’s a tense scene, played to the hilt by Pasquale and Cory Michael Smith as Oswald.

It hardly needs to be said – but it probably should be in times like these – that Assassins does not at all condone the act. Rather, it lays bare the twisted reasons behind the tragedy, from political to economic to despairing. In so doing it also embeds us viscerally and artfully into the noisy clash between the haves and the have-nots dominating so much political and social discussion.

The exploration just about swallows you up in a signature number, ‘Another National Anthem’, that comes late in the show. Joining together ominously, the assassins sing: “We’re the other national anthem, folks/The ones that can’t get in/To the ballpark.”

Furthermore, in the show’s penultimate scene, ‘Something Just Broke’, it vividly portrays the shock and grief that such acts have caused among the general populace.

While this production of Assassins ran through its all-too-brief run of only five performances, it was the smartest and most devastating musical in town.

On a more practical note, it was also the first of the three shows that Encores!-Off-Center is presenting this year. It will be followed by two performances of The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin on 26 and 27 July and five performances of Really Rosie on 2 to 5 August.

Bubbly Black Girl, which had an Off-Broadway premiere in 2000, depicts a maze of gender and race as a young African-American dancer makes her way to become a Broadway dancer.

Nikki M. James, who won a Tony for her work in The Book of Mormon, stars. Book, music and lyrics are all by Kirsten Childs, represented earlier this year Off-Broadway with Bella: An American Tall Tale. Directing will be Robert O’Hara, who also directed Bella.

With music by Carole King and book and lyrics by Maurice Sendak, Really Rosie played Off-Broadway in 1980 and 1981 and has become a favourite of children’s theatre groups.

The title character is a little girl in Brooklyn, who entertains her neighbourhood by directing and starring in a movie of her tremendously exciting and somewhat exaggerated life. Taylor Caldwell, a graduate of Broadway’s School of Rock, plays Rosie. Leigh Silverman directs.

                                Ron Cohen 

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