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Review: East West Players' Assassins Proves Sondheim's Musical Has New Relevance in Our Times

The stunning production is now running at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Los Angeles.

A scene from the East West Players production of Assassins
(© Steven Lam)

The East West Players production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's brilliant, jagged pill of a musical Assassins is thought-provoking and harrowing. he cast rails onstage with enraged entitlement, representing the four men who shot and killed sitting US Presidents and the two men and two women who failed. Though unpolished in places, the exemplary stagecraft and a committed cast make this a must-see production.

A toy box sits on the middle of the stage where kids play with dolls and put them in their collection box. Behind them, a large representation of that box becomes the set. Enter a proprietor (Max Torrez) propositioning lost souls to play at the shooting gallery. But those aren't dolls in the gallery, they're living, breathing US Presidents. The Proprietor hands a gun to these disenfranchised and convinces them that with a gun they can become important. The "Presidents" in the gallery mock the shooters. John F. Kennedy wears a dress and Ronald Reagan, an S&M costume. With the opening song, Sondheim proclaims the mantra "Everybody's Got the Right (to Be Happy)" even if you must destroy the world to get your euphoria. The Balladeer (Adam Kaokept) narrates the tales of these frustrated people who expected to fulfill all their dreams and refused to accept that life isn't always fair.

Sondheim's score mixes the motifs of Americana to present a sound as American as apple pie. Banjos, mandolins, and other instruments uncommon in the typical orchestra bring a flavor of safety and tranquility to clash with the subject of cold-blooded murder — or the more loftily word, Assassination, according to John Wilkes Booth (Trance Thompson). Weidman's book is a bit episodic, and not all the humor lands, but he humanizes the characters so we can understand their reasoning, as skewed as it is.

Gedde Watanabe's portrayal of Charles Guiteau, who stalked and killed James Garfield, captures the giddiness of a delusional man believing he can achieve anything, only to have the door shut on his face. Aric Martin has a belting voice as Giuseppe Zangara, the man who tried to kill FDR to quell a stomachache. Kaokeptk's warm, comforting style makes him perfect for the Balladeer. When he strips off his plaid shirt to transform into Lee Harvey Oswald in the final scene, he vibrates with desperation. Understudy Maya Nahree McGowan was wonderfully daffy as Sara Jane Moore, the housewife way past the verge of a nervous breakdown who sets her sights on Gerald Ford. Astoncia Bhagat Lyman is quirky and child-like as another poisoned bride of Charles Manson, Squeaky Fromme, who also failed to kill Ford a few weeks before Moore. She captures Squeaky's discombobulated mind, but some of her lines do get swallowed up by her speedy delivery. This issue occurs with several of the other players as well, and the musical director Marc Macalintal and director Snehal Desai could have resolved it without sacrificing character. It was exacerbated by some problems with Cricket Myers's sound design at the performance I attended. As an ensemble, however, the united vocals in chorus were very strong.

Desai has created a visual feast. Anna Robinson's toy chest set and Wesley Charles Chews's lighting aid David Murakami's stunning projections, which turn the wood container box into American flags, carnival booths, and the images of two assassins' executions. During "Unworthy of Your Love," John Hinckley Jr.'s ode to Jodie Foster and Charlie Manson (sung by Bhagat and Arvin Lee), psychedelic colors obscure then reveal the angelic face of Foster and the animalistic face of Manson.

March 2020 saw the closure of American theater, and one casualty was the cancellation of this production Assassins. Now, almost two years later, events that would have been unthinkable back in then hang over this production, giving it frightening context and relevance: the attack on the US Capitol that occurred on January 6, 2021. Had the production run in 2020, the visual of Samuel Byck (Christopher Chen) sitting on a toilet seat wearing a baggy, disheveled Santa suit would not have evoked memories of the QAnon Shaman grabbing the American flag, hooting, and hollering, in a raccoon costume, and essentially stating the line that Byck shouts in the finale, "Where's My Prize?" Assassins no longer represents the fringe, but an unraveling fabric of our current society.

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