Maybe it’s pandemic brain, but I can’t remember a time when a cast was as stacked as the one Classic Stage Company has assembled for its revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins. Such is the appeal of the material–an absolutely top-to-bottom masterpiece of writing, one of the few Sondheim shows where the book is equal to the score. Weidman creates a liminal space, devoid of constraints like plot, time, and place, and drops in the people who have attempted to or succeeded in assassinating the President of the United States, beginning with John Wilkes Booth and going all the way forward to John Hinckley, Jr., the last attempt before the show was written. Weidman lets the assassins interact, discuss life (and death), and form a macabre camaraderie. The book thrives in the darkest of humors. Sondheim’s score pastiches the music of America as it has changed over the last century and a half and gives the assassins a folk-singing mouthpiece in the form of The Balladeer who narrates their stories in a way that is not exactly supportive. Every character gets a showpiece moment and every actor has a feast to dive into.
But the everywhere-and-nowhere revue-style writing requires work on the part of the director to bring it all together into a coherent whole. It works on the page, yes, but the visual aspects of the production are just as important. The choices the director and the designers make are key to establishing the alternate reality Weidman has created. The world doesn’t necessarily need to be explained, but it has to have some identity. The last major New York production of Assassins was more than fifteen years ago. In it, Joe Mantello took the shooting gallery metaphor of the opening sequence and set the production at an amusement park. I have also seen productions that take place entirely within the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald will assassinate John F. Kennedy. The material is so strong that it is not dependant on the visual language, but if the physical production matches the level of the writing, Assassins can be one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre you’ll see.
Unfortunately, director and designer John Doyle’s production is so lacking in ideas and follow-through that this production rests entirely on the text and the talented ensemble of actors. Doyle’s minimalist style often works for me and I think he has used actor-musicians (as he does here) to great effect in the past. But this production hedges its bets with regard to both the minimalism and the musicians. The set is a literal flag, the lights (by Jane Cox and Tess James) are literally red, white, and blue. It’s unbearably blunt. When a president dies, they pull red ribbons out of a folded flag. That’s a far cry from the chilling buckets of blood that were poured out in Doyle’s Sweeney Todd.
None of the assassins (aside from Hinckley in the one song where he always plays the guitar) pick up an instrument, but the hardworking ensemble (Brad Giovanine, Whit K. Lee, Rob Morrison, and Katrina Yaukey) do, though they are augmented by an unseen trio that sits above the stage. The instruments are not integral to the storytelling. They are not used as props or set pieces as is sometimes the case in Doyle’s work. They’re just…instruments.
The ensemble and the Balladeer (Ethan Slater) wear red, white, and blue jumpsuits, by Ann Hould-Ward, that evoke prison attire, but nothing else about the production implies a prison aesthetic. The assassins never wear anything other than the clothes from their respective periods. Are they not in the same place as the ensemble? Everyone wears patchwork face masks in a, you guessed it, flag pattern whenever they’re not actively playing a scene or instrument. They make a great show of slowly taking off or putting on their masks. But for what? If these are meant to be contemporary ghosts, why is the mask the only thing that designates them as such? At the end, there is a projected image of the January 6 rioters, I guess to tie in their motivations to those of the assassins, but it’s a major stretch and the production does not do anything to connect the two ideas. None of it adds up. None of it feels intentional. The production ends up being a bunch of pieces that look kind of ridiculous all put together.
All told, it’s saved by its cast, though. Across the board, this group is doing exemplary work. Steven Pasquale’s natural charm equips him well as the persuasive John Wilkes Booth, the group’s de facto leader. His underlying intensity is terrifying and fully believable as a murderer. Will Swenson devours “The Ballad of Guiteau” as he cakewalks to the gallows, spitting and stamping his way to death. His performance is delightfully unhinged, but also sympathetic to Guiteau’s wild belief in himself. Judy Kuhn, as Sara Jane Moore, and Tavi Gevinson, as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, share two scenes together (both characters tried to assassinate Gerald Ford) and have a nice comedic chemistry. As Leon Czolgosz, Brandon Uranowitz conveys the empty pit in his soul. In the brief moment that Emma Goldman (Bianca Horn) acknowledges him, it is quite moving to see the hole fill up. It only amplifies how hollow he is the rest of the time.
Katrina Yaukey is silent and stone-faced in the ensemble for most of the show, but her eyes, between two long braids, convey something else. It’s something perceptive, and maybe sinister. She seems to have more information than any other character on the stage. She is captivating and I found myself watching her more than anyone else. I’m not sure what she knows, but I wish I did. Maybe it would have helped me unlock the rest of the production.