It’s not often that the John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins” is performed. The Yale Repertory Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary year by including this brilliant work about the men who attempted or succeeded in assassinating a president of the United States. Director James Bundy, the artistic director of Yale Rep, punches the action with enough pizzazz to delight the audience. Expect a full, live orchestra conducted by music director Andrea Grody, amazing performances by the actors, and a stage filled with the color and energy of an amusement park laced with the danger and shock of gun fire.
Yale Rep’s staging is always superior. Riccardo Hernandez’s set is no exception although it was interrupted in the most unusual way on opening night. The curtain opened, the music began, the actors performed and all of a sudden a voice came over the intercom informing the audience of a technical difficulty and then asked the actors to leave the stage. Since the set looked like everything was perfect, people in the audience looked more closely when the play started from the beginning again. This time the set was just as it had been, but projection designer Michael Commendatore’s projection screen now featured the faces of the presidents who were assassinated or nearly killed. It was worth the interruption because we could see the faces of the men who served the country and were loved by some and hated by others. This musical shows you how disturbed these assassins were.
However, John Wilkes Booth did not want to be remembered as insane. He was distraught that the Civil War tore this country apart. He held President Lincoln responsible for the deaths of so many young men and therefore felt justified killing the president. He felt it was his patriotic duty. Bundy makes sure that the characters don’t win empathy from the audience, although some come pretty close, but ultimately, the director makes sure that it’s the violence and the killing that turns the country upside down with the assassination of presidents.
Sondheim’s “The Gun Song” has a lyric that really exemplifies the turmoil that happens when a President is killed. There’s an immediate change in the world.
And all you have to do
Is move your little finger
Move your little finger and
You can change the world
That America has a long history of violence and guns is highlighted throughout the production. So many songs refer to the American Dream gone wrong. Why did these murderers pull that trigger? What is the commonality? Each one has a completely different reason, but they were all passionately discontented and mentally deranged; their rationales for murder were as varied as the assassins.
Add to this motley assemblage of killers: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a devoted member of Charles Manson’s cult. Lauren Molina plays the comic role as a space out crazed assassin who attempted but failed to take the life of President Gerald Ford.
The cast colorfully outfitted by costume designer Ilona Somogyi performed masterfully. They include: Austin Durant, P.J. Griffith, Lucas Dixon, Stephen DeRosa, Stanley Bahorek, Richard R. Henry, Lauren Molina, Julia Murney, Robert Lenzi, Dylan Frederick, Brian Ray Norris, Liz Wisan, Fred Inkley, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Courtney Jamison, and Jay Aubrey Jones. Yi Zhao designed the often eerie lights and Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts designed the sound.
This is a rare opportunity to see a great Weidman/Sondheim show. Put it on your “must see” list.
Note: Assassins continues with 8 p.m. performances each night this week through April 8 with a matinee on the last day at 2, at the University Theatre. Details: yalerep.org
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]