Musicals aren’t my first favorite form of theatre, and probably won’t ever be, but PlayMakers Repertory Company has been steadily eroding my prejudices with the seductive pleasures of its annual large-cast musical productions. Assassins, this year’s blow-out (through April 20), happens to also be a ferociously comic consideration of American gun culture, where the assassin or would-be assassin of a President gains the summit of social and historical notoriety. For PlayMakers, it continues the theatrical exploration begun in January, with the PRC-commissioned The Story of the Gun by Mike Daisey. The Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins, directed here by Mike Donahue, first played in 1990, and in some ways the show’s killers seem almost quaint–hapless and endearing, even–compared to today’s suicide bombers. In other ways, the show seems au courant, as when Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Sam Byck talks about flying a 747 into the White House to kill Dick Nixon. The script is rich with 20th century social, political and artistic references (e.g. Death of a Salesman) and may mean the most to people who already have some familiarity with a few 20th century Presidents and the assorted characters who took up guns to kill them, but you needn’t know a thing to have a good time.
Assassins foregoes a straightforward storyline in favor of a collection of robust vignettes and songs that collectively make a potent stew of satire, cynicism, pity and politics, floating in a gravy of dark humor. It foregoes the constraints of linear time altogether, freely bringing together people of different eras–John Wilkes Booth appears before Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance. The characters and stories are provoked, tempted, drawn on and catered to by the Balladeer (Spencer Moses) and the Proprietor, played by Ray Dooley. Dooley has not been onstage enough this season, and it’s wonderful to see him do his magic, imbuing his very footsteps with menace. His smile as he offers guns guns guns glitters with Mephistophelean knowledge. I had never seen a production of this show previously, and was skeptical that this stuff would really be funny–but I laughed often and loudly, between chills.
Julie Fishell is hilarious as Sara Jane Moore, who tried, sort of, to assassinate President Gerald Ford, and she and Maren Searle as Squeaky Fromme are priceless together. Jeffrey Blair Cornell channels Al Pacino and gives a fantastic performance as Sam Byck, a once-employed and self-respecting man, now an out-of-work Santa who just can’t see anything else to do besides try to kill the President. When we first see him, he’s wearing his Santa suit and a 3-day beard. He strips off his jacket to reveal a singleton undershirt and sits down with his lunch and a tape recorder to record a rambling letter to Lenny Bernstein, his hero, before he heads of to commandeer that 747.
Even he is upstaged by Jeffrey Meanza, who steals the show each time he appears as Charles Guiteau, the charming crazy con man who killed President Garfield. Meanza, whose day job is as assistant artistic director of PlayMakers, sings and carries on to beat the band, and his dancing! Choreographer Casey Sams has him skipping and bowing all over the stage in a charming and most amusing fashion. That band is pretty hard to beat, too. Mark Hartman on piano leads another nine musicians as the brass-rich group plays throughout the show far upstage in Rachel Hauck’s dark and flashy set that combines carnival, cabaret and Manganyar Seduction.
Assassins has a great tag line from itself: “Everybody pays attention when you’ve got a gun.” No doubt about it.