Assassins kills at The Encore
DEXTER, Mich.–Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, now being staged at Dexter’s Encore Theatre, explores the more nightmarish aspects of the American Dream: for if we’re told from birth that we can “get ahead”– both professionally and personally–by working hard, and yet we toil and labor and get nowhere, we’ll inevitably feel cheated, angry, and bitter.
But when a country breaks your heart, at whom do you aim your rage? For the 9 historic characters at the heart of Assassins, the answer is simple: a U.S. President. And while some are successful in their attempt, and others are not, they all transcend their respective eras to gather together in this show as a perverse kind of secret society. Included in the group is its famed forefather, stage actor John Wilkes Booth (David Moan); McKinley assassin Leon Czologsz (Dan Johnson); Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau (Daniel A. Helmer); FDR’s would-be killer Giuseppe Zangara (Ari Axelrod); Lee Harvey Oswald (Matt Brennan); would-be Nixon assassin Samuel Byck (Keith Allan Kalinowski); failed Ford assassins Sara Jane Moore (Sarah Briggs) and Manson protege Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Carly Snyder); and would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley (James Fischer).
If this sounds like pretty strange territory for a musical, it is – but in the best way possible. There’s still no other show quite like Assassins, more than 25 years after its Off-Broadway debut; and in addition to Sondheim’s terrific score (and John Weidman’s darkly humorous book), you get fascinating, brief glimpses into our history, and you’re also challenged to relate to people whose actions you’re never asked to excuse.
Set designer Sarah Tanner provides a two level, washed-out wood warehouse backdrop, with stairs and ladders, vertical strings of white lights along the beams, and five windows beautifully lit by Tyler Chinn. More broadly, Chinn’s gorgeous lighting design plays a key role in establishing each number’s tone and atmosphere, particularly in “Gun Song,” and in creating the feel of an electric chair execution in “How I Saved Roosevelt.” Anne Donevan designed the show’s props – including guns from the assassins’ respective eras – and Sharon Larkey Urick oversaw the costumes, which feel exactly right for each character.
Tyler Driskill does his usual outstanding work as the show’s musical director, and Brennan proves himself to be that rare quadruple threat: he can sing, he can dance, and he can act, plus he can masterfully direct a show, too. In his hands, the intermission-less, nearly two hour “Assassins” never bogs down, nor does it feel hurried. You eavesdrop as these characters interact with each other – usually in pairs – thus learning what their lives had been like, and what drove them to commit violence.
Encore’s ensemble, on the whole, is fantastic. Among the cast’s standouts are David Moan, who commands the stage with authority, and looms large as the rag-tag group’s forefather, John Wilkes Booth. In the show’s earliest scenes, we see him tending his wounds immediately after shooting Lincoln, and he’s so focused on setting the historical record straight – regarding how Lincoln irreparably ruined the U.S., so that Booth believed himself to be a patriotic martyr – that he ignores the enemies at the gate. And Moan conveys all this with such intensity and passion that you can’t help but be moved, even while ultimately condemning his actions.
Helmer earns laughs as the irrepressibly upbeat author/evangelist Guiteau, who sings of looking on the bright side even when approaching a hangman’s platform; and Johnson – playing the show’s most serious, intense character – conveys his character’s vulnerability in a sweet, gentle scene, in which he expresses his love for no-nonsense anarchist Emma Goldman (Leah Fox).
Finally, Brennan has charm and wit to spare as the show’s balladeer; and as Oswald – unlike most productions, Encore’s “Assassins” begins with Oswald arriving at the book depository and turning on the radio, making the whole trippy series of events feel as though they might be happening in his head – Brennan skillfully navigates a journey from despair to violence at the urging of his assassin compatriots.
Why do they cheer him on? Because if Oswald successfully kills John F. Kennedy, a beloved, modern President, then all the assassins will gain relevance. They’ll be discussed and remembered.
And if you can’t receive the love or justice that you want in the world, immortality through infamy seems, to this historic group of misfits, a reasonable consolation prize.