Having tried to stage this show for 15 years, the Gilbert couldn’t have found a better time for the premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. With political drama taking center stage of a large majority of the American populous, snubbing even our most celebrated sitcoms to watch debates, seeing Assassins allows us to revisit history in the hope that surely, with all that we’ve learned, we won’t repeat it.
The play opens with the number “Everybody’s Got the Right” sung by the Proprietor (with an excellent stern but tongue-in-cheek delivery by Paul Wilson), who hands out guns to the play’s collection of mal-intents. The song portrays them as frustrated American dreamers: “No job? Cupboard bare?/One room, no one there?/Hey pal, don’t despair--/ You wanna shoot a President?” Given today’s shaky economy, many viewing this play are sure to identify with these defeated dreamers who lash out at the ailing system that only pretends to serve us, just as I did. The American dream takes many on a loopy de loop spinning in circles that inevitably leave a few sputtering and crazy. The sputtering and crazy are seen here, in a tug of war for the American dream that leaves them flat on their backs yet gracing the pages of history books.
The audience is then taken to the moment in which John Wilkes Booth (played captivatingly by Jonathan de Araujo) assassinates President Abraham Lincoln. Booth has the opening assassination, and as such, plays the devil on the shoulder of almost every assassinator henceforth. He does so with great relish, and Araujo’s capability as an actor allows the audience to see how Booth believes he was betrayed by history and violence of the Civil War. It is achingly beautiful to watch as he becomes the charismatic snake that leads all into their garden of demise.
The production was replete with capable performances; however, a few went above and beyond. James Johnson’s Samuel Byck seethes with a terrifying lunacy that remarkably, makes sense. The line “You know the world is a vicious stinking pit of emptiness and pain,” carries its weight in irony when it comes from a man wearing a Santa suit. Caroline DePew, though in a smaller role, truly understands Emma Goldman’s belief in anarchy as a means of reason, and her lines “They make us servants, Leon. We do not make servants of each other,” to me, embodies the theme of the play in a memorable way. Lastly, Tim Kranz’s Guiseppe Zangara does much more than characterize desperation; he breathes it in a way in which I truly pity.
Assassins is criticized as a play that skirts the haunting moments of America’s history, and I tend to agree. From viewing Sweeney Todd, I expected disillusionment and terror going into the play, but was met with a pigeon-holed depiction full of humor. However, there is a moment in which the play digs deeper, that of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. After Oswald completes his deed, the song “Something Just Broke” allows the audience a moment of reflection on history without forcing us to look at in humor.
The Gilbert has its limitations in producing such a large scale musical production, however, each actor’s adeptness and the quality of the lines and score allow us to revel in the humor of horror while pushing to pause and reflect post-show on how, while not excusable, the most terrifying acts in history are understandable. The play gently reminds its audience with the invocation of Arthur Miller’s “Attention must be paid” that those in power in America need not forget those in need, those who made them what they are.
As the sneer of Halloween draws near, and the interest of the election explodes, there couldn’t be a better musical production to take in. Check it out at the Gilbert Theater through Oct. 19t. Tickets are $12. For more ticket information and showtimes, call 678-7186 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.