Theater review: Sondheim's 1990 'Assassins' still frighteningly relevant

CorrespondentApril 7, 2014 

  • Details

    What: Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company

    Where: Paul Green Theatre, Center for Dramatic Art, UNC-Chapel Hill

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and April 15-19; 2 p.m. Saturday and April 13 and 19-20

    Tickets: $15-$50

    Info: 919-962-7529 or

Stephen Sondheim creates award-winning musicals out of the most unlikely subjects, but a show about attempted and successful assassinations of U.S. presidents might seem too much of a risk. But “Assassins” is a gripping think piece as well as an engaging entertainment, especially in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s brilliant production.

Set in an imaginary midway shooting gallery, its proprietor offers guns to those who are feeling depressed and angry about their lives and country, promising that shooting a president will make them happy. Various men and women in history who plotted such deeds emerge from the audience, taking the proffered firearms. For the rest of this 95-minute roller-coaster ride, each character’s story is told in music and dialogue, often joined by some or all of the others across time, forming a macabre support group.

Sondheim’s songs mimic each character’s era, sometimes poignant and bitter, often satirical and snappy. But John Weidman’s script has even greater impact, from gallows humor interchanges between Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (both targeting Gerald Ford) to the disturbing ramblings of Sam Byck (Richard Nixon’s would-be executioner). Weidman’s most chilling scene is the final one, in which John Wilkes Booth appears to Lee Harvey Oswald, persuading him to take the biggest prize.

Director Mike Donahue confidently balances weighty underpinnings with vaudeville-like surfaces, making full use of Rachel Hauck’s balconies-and-stairs set and Charlie Morrison’s carnival-esque lighting. Mark Hartman’s musical direction and Casey Sams’ choreography keep the material captivating while subtly emphasizing its caustic messages.

The nigh-perfect cast is lead by Danny Binstock’s preening, sly John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s funny-scary Sam Byck and Julie Fishell’s ditzy Sara Jane Moore. Gregory DeCandia’s Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley’s assassin) is movingly intense, Jeffrey Meanza’s Charles Guiteau (James Garfield’s murderer) gloriously deluded, and Brandon Garegnani’s John Hinckley (who wounded Ronald Reagan) pitiably deranged. Maren Searle (“Squeaky” Fromme), Joseph Medeiros (as Giuseppe Zangara, F.D.R.’s pursuer), Spencer Moses (the Balladeer who narrates) and Ray Dooley (the Proprietor) round the talented principals.

Profanity and gunfire throughout the show may trouble some audience members, and the sound system doesn’t allow all of Sondheim’s crafty lyrics to be fully heard. But what this 1990 musical still has to say about freedoms and fanaticisms is frighteningly up-to-the-minute.


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