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PlayMakers Repertory Company concludes its 2013-14 season with a blockbuster musical by songmeister Stephen Sondheim, Assassins. The work, a swift and deadly concoction of music and mayhem, brings together the nine different people who made an attempt on the life of their sitting president, whether or not they succeeded. In a carnivalesque setting designed by Rachel Hauck, each assassin is invited down to the stage where they all assemble to receive their guns. The action comes thick and fast from that point on, and this exceptional cast never let us go. We were drawn irretrievably to the staggering and terrible conclusion.
Assassins is only 115 minutes long without intermission. Indeed, where in this rush to judgment would anyone fit an intermission? From the very first note, when the Proprietor (Ray Dooley) begins handing out guns, we begin to learn the history of what it means to be an assassin (“Everybody’s Got the Right”). There are the dangerous gunmen, the inept and bumbling gun wavers, and the philosophical ranters who must talk to their victims in absentia. We meet each of them in their turn. Director Mike Donahue made every moment count in this murderous maze.
There is the most famous gunman, John Wilkes Booth (Danny Binstock). He is introduced by the Balladeer, Spencer Moses. Moses travels throughout the play, introducing historical faces and playing a number of different instruments. Moses asks Booth why he did it (“The Ballad of Booth”). Booth responds not with words but with a written declaration of why he did it. There are always reasons.
Each assassin has more than a little time onstage. Much was made of the two women who attempted to murder President Ford, Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme (Maren Searle) and Sara Jane Moore (Julie Fishell). Fromme and murderer John Hinckley (Brandon Garegnani) had a stunning duet, “Unworthy of Your Love.” There are several company numbers where more than one assassin takes the stage simultaneously. Giuseppe Zangara (Joseph Medeiros) tells of how he tried to kill Roosevelt in “How I Saved Roosevelt,” accompanied by a quintet of chorus members who all feel they had a hand in foiling this attempt.
The stage is made a dance hall as Charles Guiteau (Jeffery Meanza) tells of his exploits. Meanza did the character proud, displaying a dynamite set of pipes and the easy grace of a dancer. “The Ballad of Guiteau” was a highlight in this seeming list of highlights. Meanza made the very most of his time onstage and went dancing to his death by hanging. This show, hilarious in places, was also soberingly gruesome in others.
The set is huge and carnivalesque, with flashing lights and movable set pieces, and not a little bit of pyrotechnics. The whole is orchestrated by musical director Mark Hartman, who plays piano and conducts a nine-piece orchestra from under the upstage catwalks. The music is tight and uniquely Sondheim, with lyrics that can curl your toes and music that is quietly gentle in places and unabashedly grand in others.
There was far too much going on onstage to list it here. Suffice it to say that all seventeen members of this cast fired on all cylinders, creating a masterwork that PRC can call its own. From the inept but philosophical Sam Bick (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) to the quiet and intense Lee Harvey Oswald (Patrick McHugh), these fine and talented actors sang their way through what was a rollercoaster ride of dizzying highs and devastating lows, carrying us along with them to the terrible climax.
PlayMakers has created another in a long list of hits with Assassins, bringing its season to a close with a true megahit, complete with dazzling light show and stirring musical accompaniment. Make your reservations now to see Assassins, but be warned: the show is not for the faint of heart. There are multiple gunshots and much waving of guns around, and the faint of heart may find it too much for them. Opening night was a sellout with standing room only, and that audience ate this show up. Put it on your calendar now.
Assassins continues through Sunday, April 20. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.