Lauren Molina and Julia Murney. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Book By John Weidman
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by James Bundy
Through April 8
By Lauren Yarger
Who'd have thought spending the night with some mentally unhinged presidential Assassins could be so much fun?
That's exactly what Yale Repertory's production of Stephen Sondheim's unlikely musical with a cast of characters like John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and Squeaky Fromme is: pure fun as expertly directed by James Bundy.
The book by John Weidman has Oswald (Dylan Frederick) as a sort of coach for the other presidential assassins, or would-be assassins who sometimes transverse time to communicate. There's a Proprietor (Austin Durant) , a sort of barker in tribute to the carnival atmosphere that accompanies a presidential assassination and the fascination that develops about the ones who carry them out. He has different types of guns for sale, and there is a balladeer (also Frederick) who serves as a sort of narrator.
The assassins hoping to take there place in history, and spouting very warped views of reality, are many:
- John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) who shot Ronald Reagan to prove his love for actress Jodi Foster.
- Charles Guiteau (a humorous Stephen DeRosa) who shot James Garfield (Brian Ray Norris) when the president ignored his somewhat outrageous plea to be made the ambassador of France.
- Leon Czolgosz (P.J. Griffith), who assassinated William McKinley.
- Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), who killed the mayor of Chicago when he attemoted to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt.
- Samuel Byck (a very funny Richard R. Henry), who dreams of assassinating Richard M. Nixon.
- Linette "Squeaky" Fromme (a riotous Lauren Molina), a girlfriend of murderer Charles Manson who shot President Gerald Ford (Fred Inkley)
- Sarah Jane Moore (a delightfully awkward Julia Murney) a messed up housewife who also wanted to take out Ford.
- John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi), who shot Abraham Lincoln, and his accomplice David Herold (Brian Ray Norris).
- and Oswald who at first is reluctant to take out John F. Kennedy, but is seduced by the others to take his lace in history.
There also are some other characters in the mix: Emma Goldman (Liz Wisan), a political activist and anarchist, and Garfield's Secretary of State James Blaine (Fred Inkley) as well as an ensemble of bystanders.
It's a bizarre premise for a musical, but somehow it works on a spectacular set designed by Riccardo Hernandez. It features diamond patterns and spot lights (Yi Zhao, lighting design) as well as projections (designed by Michael Commendatore) looming over the action (the technical elements are so complex, there were issues the nigh I attended and the show had to be restarted. It was worth the wait.)
Sondheim''s score, with musical direction by Andrea Grody (assisted by Daniel Schlosberg), is understated. The clever lyrics help tell the story, with songs titled "How I Saved Roosevelt," "Unworthy of Your Love" "Something Just Broke," but the score, with ballads for some of the assassins, isn't really memorable.
The script manages not to glorify the crimes, but to explore what might have motivated the individuals to commit them. Awkward moments abound: do we really want to applaud an execution, even if it is the end of a song?
The highlight for me, and some of the most fun I have had in a theater seat for some time, were the scenes between Squeaky and Sarah Jane. Molina and Murney individually cause us to guffaw with their portrayals of these wacky women -- hippy-type Squeaky obsessed with Manson and Moore who makes us think it is perfectly normal for a mother to pull a gun on her small son (Sana "Prince" Sarr) -- but when they get together, they have a chemistry that explodes on stage. So, so funny.
Don't miss this one. Assassins do their thing at Yale's Rep's University Theatre (222 York St., New Haven, through April 8. Performance times vary. Tickets are $12–$99: yalerep.org; 203-432-1234, Box Office, 1120 Chapel St.
David Dorfman (Musical Staging), Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Designer), Ilona Somogyi (Costume Designer), Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes (Sound Designers), Steph Waaser (Technical Director), Ron Carlos (Dialect Coach), Rick Sordelet (Fight Director).
Tickets for Assassins range from $12–99 and are available online at yalerep.org, by phone at (203) 432-1234, and in person at the Yale Rep Box Office (1120 Chapel Street