The Pennsylvania Players certainly got the timing right. Just before the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the troupe presented Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s maverick musical ASSASSINS.
Because the actors were all college students (from U of Penn and elsewhere), they were particularly right for this show. While we may not think of assassins as young people, history proves that many indeed were. As Sondheim reminds us in “The Ballad of Booth,” Lincoln’s assassin was only “27 years of age.” Leon Czolgosz was a year older when he killed McKinley and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme a year younger when she pointed a gun at President Ford.
And they weren’t the most youthful. John Hinckley was a mere 25 when he tried to assassinate Reagan. As for Lee Harvey Oswald — the one whose name has greatly resurfaced in the last few weeks and the most infamous to many contemporary Americans – he was the youngest of all, having just turned 24 the month before that dreadful day in Dallas.
What’s more, many young people these days delay going to college – so there’s your Giuseppe Zangara (32), Charles Guiteau (39), Sam Byck (44) and Sara Jane Moore (45). Still, a glance at this cast in Philadelphia suggested that no one was yet born when the show premiered in 1991. But that didn’t stop Jeremy Berman (Zangara), Miguel Rivera-Lanas (Guiteau), Zach Baldwin (Byck) and Natalie Riemer (Moore) from being convincing and scoring mightily.
Berman amazed in the way he maintained his broken-English Italian accent; one might almost think that English was indeed his second language.
As Byck, Baldwin poured himself into his role and Santa Claus suit when haranguing into a tape recorder. He may be able to carry a tune, but keep in mind for your production that this role requires barely any singing; Byck basically has little more than two darkly funny monologues.
Baldwin may have become a little too intense, for when the time came for him to throw away his hamburger in disgust, he flung it into the crowd where it hit a front-row patron squarely in the eye. The young theatergoer laughed it off, so chances are there won’t be a lawsuit.
Throughout the production, director Ken Kaissar made some atypical but justifiable choices. Proprietor, as the owner of the shooting gallery is known, urges the motley crew to “c’mon and shoot a president” is usually portrayed by a man, but Kaissar instead opted for the ghoulishly effective Kate Herzlin. While equality between the sexes has been steadily (and thankfully) gaining in the last half-century, our seeing a member of what used to be called “the fair sex” urging people to assassinate packed an additional wallop.
And while Kaissar had the malcontents initially seem genuinely horrified at Proprietor’s suggestion that they kill, we soon saw them adjust. They strolled around the stage, sussing out their victims, whom Kaissar wisely had wear thick rubber Halloween masks. Yes, getting ones that resembled Reagan and Kennedy was no problem, but what about the others? Kaissar simply used anonymous-looking masks that at least told us that the people behind them were presidents. Hey, who remembers what William McKinley or James Garfield looked like, anyway?
Kaissar’s even bolder move was casting Derrick High, a black actor, as the Balladeer who commented on John Wilkes Booth. For when Booth used the N-word – frankly, it’s only the first two syllables of an even more unfortunate term – High walked off stage in disgust. This made a powerful moment into an even more powerful one.
The other atypical bit of casting that Kaissar embraced was having
Actress Kelsey Plona, a sophomore at the school, play Sara Jane Moore’s nine-year-old son Billy. But all the non-traditional casting was in keeping with Sondheim and Weidman’s vision. Both wisely took a freewheeling, non-realistic approach when writing; for example, they had Guiteau, executed in 1882, nevertheless meet Moore in 1975, and not thanks to time-travel; the authors were saying in not-hitting-you-over-the-head fashion that the assassins of old influenced assassins to come.
By taking this fanciful approach, the audience found that a musical that involved four deaths and five near-deaths became easier to take. Still, has there ever been a show that more requires a sign out front that says “Gunshots will be fired at this performance”?
Kaissar had some other worthy ideas. Traditionally, those five Bystanders who bragged “How I Saved Roosevelt” are positioned downstage; upstage, would-be FDR assassin Zangara is in his electric chair, looking straight out and giving his last ramblings and rationalizations. Kaissar made the moment substantially more effective by putting the electric chair on rollers and having Zangara furiously wheel over to the Roosevelt rescuers and confront them eye-to-eye while singing.
The only way in which ASSASSINS slavishly serves realism is in the costumes that its characters wear. Booth and Guiteau were in quintessentially 19th century clothes, while Zangara and Czolgosz (an appropriately intense Rohan Waghani) were dressed the way working men were clad in the 20th. Moore appeared to have just come out of one of those mall stores that have such names as “Suburban Gal” or “More to Love.”
Costume designer Megan Guy’s masterstroke was to put Fromme in a red cape that was topped by a red hood. As a result, Mikie Sakanaka appeared to be a demented version of a character in the musical that Sondheim had written before this one: INTO THE WOODS, of course, and Little Red Ridinghood.
Finding the right actress for Fromme – innocent, naïve and yet (to say the least) mischievous and dangerous – is harder than it looks. Sakanaka was terrific and terrifying while describing what she felt while Moore was looking at her KFC meal. “Charlie,” Sakanaka snarled, referring to her hero who was surnamed Manson, “says that fast food is the stinking swill Americans lap up the way a dog returns to its own vomit.” Riemer was funny in giving a not-while-I’m-eating look as Sakanaka continued talking about “the oozing pus of a society.”
Fromme also represents all the girls who made John Hinckley feel unimportant if not impotent. Trevor Pierce made us see right from the opening number that he was unbalanced; when Proprietor gave him an inflatable doll, he looked both disgusted that this would be the best he’d do in the dating department – mixed with the thought that he’d better make the most of “her.” (The next thing you know, we’ll have a musical about Hinckley called Guy and Inflatable Doll.)
If you cast a John Hinckley who can play guitar, you’re ahead of the game, for he should ideally accompany himself while singing the folkish “Unworthy of Your Love” to love-object Jodie Foster. Pierce couldn’t play, but the orchestra took over nicely. Musical director Deborah Bergen did a fine job — aside from “How I Saved Roosevelt” in which she made the tempo too fast. Lord knows that under any circumstances, Sondheim’s lickety-split lyrics can be hard to glean, but having this cast deliver them at a “Getting Married Today” pace was too much for an audience to digest.
The toughest scene for both audiences and actors is the one in which Booth (a perfect Harrison Pharamond) encourages Lee Harvey Oswald (an appropriately brooding Danny Fradin) to assassinate Kennedy. Was Kaissar or Fradin responsible for a markedly different interpretation on one word that made a great deal of difference? Usually when Booth alludes to the Roman senator who helped assassinate Julius Caesar, Oswald takes a few seconds before he dares to guess “Brutus.” Here Fradin said “Brutus!” immediately and sharply. This Oswald had a need to let this strange stranger know that he was bright.
The audience of course turned somber during this scene; the time spent laughing at the other assassins’ various idiocies was now officially over. There was an audible gasp heard when Oswald fired the shot and the other assassins showed demented grins. Worse, they then hugged the way fans do when their team has won the Super Bowl.
One woman in the audience was heard to grunt after Booth told Oswald “Fifty years from now, they’ll still be arguing about the grassy knoll, the Mafia, some Cuban crouched behind a stockade fence.” Her reaction certainly made sense, for truer words have indeed never been spoken.
And fifty years from now, our descendants may still be having these discussions – after a performance of ASSASSINS. It’s that good a show. Has any musical ever dared to take such risks and succeed as brilliantly in the process?
You may e-mail Peter at email@example.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at www.amazon.com.