Review: ‘Assassins’ – Encores Off Center at City Center

By Jonathan Spira on 16 July 2017
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Four U.S. presidents, namely Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, were assassinated while in office, all by gunshot, and all within a period of one hundred years. In addition, two U.S. presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, were injured in attempted assassinations and others, including Andrew Jackson and William Howard Taft, were the targets of assassination plots, as was Richard Nixon, whose would-be assassin planned to fly a Boeing 747 jumbo jet into the White House.

This summer, City Center’s Encores Off-Center series of revivals celebrated Stephen Sondheim’s murderously funny musical “Assassins,” which first opened in an off-Broadway production in 1990 and on Broadway in 2004, where it won five Tony Awards.

As the show opens, the audience sees a carnival-esque shooting gallery with nine targets. The Proprietor, played splendidly by Ethan Lipton, presides over this rogues gallery of assassins as if he were The Emcee in a “Cabaret” gone very wrong. As their thoughts are set to song, the Proprietor eggs them on to achieve their missions and provides them with their weapons.

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In the background, distorted versions of “Hail to the Chief” and John Philip Sousa classics eerily play on, giving the show the creepy air of a horror film gone amiss. Indeed, throughout the show, the score, played so well by the orchestra, conducted by Chris Fenwick, sets the stage in the corresponding era using strains of period appropriate music including works by Burt Bacharach and Irving Berlin.

It’s hard to single out a single cast member, but the brooding Shuler Hensley as assassin Leon Czolgosz, who shot William McKinley, Danny Wolohan as Samuel Byck wearing a Santa Claus costume while dictating messages to Leonard Bernstein and his intended target, President Nixon, as well as the wonderfully inept team of Erin Markey and the inimitable Victoria Clark, who as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, both attempt to shoot President Gerald R. Ford in separate incidents, are all worthy of note.

The first-ever successful assassin, without whom the genre would not have been possible, John Wilkes Booth, is dark yet charismatic as played by Steven Pasquale, while Clifton Duncan literally stops the show as The Balladeer with the number, “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong.”

In a summer that has seen Trump-like figures in “Julius Caesar” with actual protestors mixed in amongst the Roman ones, the image of the nine assassins singing about “another national anthem” without having to invoke current imagery clearly resonated with theatergoers. The lyrics of one number, which in part read “Every now and then / The country / Goes a little wrong / Every now and then / A madman’s / Bound to come along,” hit home.

As patrons entered the theater, a sign advised them to be aware that guns would be fired in the course of the show. Fortunately, no one objected.

THE DETAILS

Assassins
Limited engagement through July 15, 2017
New York City Center
131 W 55th Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
Runtime: 1 hr. and 45 min.
www.nycitycenter.org

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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