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James Barbour and Neil Patrick Harris
in Assassins
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
At least once, sensitivity surrounding a musical about gunning down presidents halted the Broadway bow of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins, but the bravura revue has finally arrived in a walloping production. Stressing the wry-to-sinister carnival atmosphere that the composer-lyricist and librettist want to establish -- the shooting gallery effect -- set designer Robert Brill has constructed an imposing segment of wooden steeplechase that reaches to the high rafters of Studio 54 and looks as if it would go up in flames were a match to be carelessly tossed at it.

Of course, this is just the statement about perishability (of American ideals, etc.) that the authors imply. On the set, lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have hung and strung a wall-sized grid of garish bulbs. Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier has found a barrage of gunshots with which to lift patrons out of their seats repeatedly during the 100-minute show. And so the look and sound of Assassins as drilled by director Joe Mantello is enough to make a viewer gasp frequently.

But what about the show itself? It means to say much about three successful and six unsuccessful presidential assassins, John Wilkes Booth (Michael Cerveris) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris) being the most (in)famous of them. The others, in order of gun wielding, are Charles Guiteau (Denis O'Hare), Leon Czolgosz (James Barbour), Giuseppe Zangara (Jeffrey Kuhn), Samuel Byck (Mario Cantone), Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Mary Catherine Garrison), Sara Jane Moore (Becky Ann Baker), and John Hinckley (Alexander Gemignani). It was an act of monumental chutzpah for Sondheim and Weidman to take on such an inflammatory subject; the very idea of following through infuses the piece with a kind of importance and suggests that what's being revealed must carry great weight.

Does it? Since Sondheim is such a rhyming whiz ("scaffold" with "raffled" in one of these ditties) and a master at setting argument in song, there's undeniable pith in a score that he's on record as declaring "perfect." Though he won't find agreement here -- his Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along scores are much more rounded -- he's certainly right to be proud of the material in which he's instilled the musical's crucial disenfranchisement message. He puts "Another National Anthem" in the mouths of people who are "the ones who can't get into the ballpark." For those who can get in but whose pleasure at being there is disrupted by those refused entrance, he's written the touching "Something Just Broke" (added to the show for Sam Mendes's antiseptic 1992 Donmar Warehouse production). He's also composed a number of deeply ironic, jaunty melodies for his nine assassin wannabes, for a balladeer (also Neil Patrick Harris), and for a sinister carnie barker (Marc Kudisch). The tunes are appealing until they begin sounding alike, as if they're one long song. (This has been Sondheim's pitfall in recent years and it culminated in Bounce, which is just about to be issued on CD.)

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Sondheim's work here is its origin and development. Well known to have learned his craft at the knee of Oscar Hammerstein II, the younger songwriter has always been grateful for the education. Interestingly, Hammerstein reiterated the need for dreams throughout his oeuvre: "If you don't have a dream," he wrote in South Pacific, "how you gonna have a dream come true?" In Assassins, Sondheim devoted himself to considering the perversion of dreams, specifically The American Dream. It isn't the first time that he's raised the subject of dreams not only deferred but sent up in (gun)smoke -- Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along sound the same sad, sour note -- but here, Sondheim finally puts a metaphorical bullet in the heart of dreams.

Assassins is affecting in the abstract, but in its depiction of the individual assassin aspirants, it proves to be as awkward at hitting its target as Charles Manson protégé Squeaky Fromme was at hitting hers. And that's librettist Weidman's domain. Though the nine characters who've been handed their firearms by the barker (here called the Proprietor) each receive stage time to declare who they are, none of them says or does anything illuminating. When Weidman contributes vignettes in which the characters meet as they never did in life, he seldom rises above sophomoric humor. (The encounter between Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme is particularly silly.)

Bringing on Gerald Ford, Weidman clumsily relies for laughs on the standard Prez-as-dolt conceit. The unemployed tire salesman Sam Byck, who sent rambling and distraught tapes to celebrities about his mounting discontent, is shown recording one for Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps Weidman got his hands on a transcript: The lines Mario Cantone speaks in his standard cant tone are sufficiently inchoate and mirthless. What's most amusing about Byck's monologue is that he sings some of the lyrics of "America" and "Tonight" from the Bernstein/Sondheim musical West Side Story, a little in-joke.

Alexander Gemignani, Jeffrey Kuhn, Mary Catherine Garrison,
Denis O'Hare, Michael Cerveris, James Barbour,
Becky Ann Baker, and Mario Cantone with
(foreground:) Neil Patrick Harris in Assassins
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In taking on a subject as broad and deep as presidential assassination and its implications and ramifications, a librettist has to suggest more than the participants adding up to a bunch of two-dimensional crackpots. There is a sequence wherein each of the figures offers a reason for acting on his or her impulses: "I did it to bring down the government of Abraham Lincoln and to avenge the ravaged South" (Booth), "I did it 'cause my belly was on fire" (Zangara), "I did it so my friends would know where I'm coming from" (Moore), and so on. But this info isn't enough to make one feel that Assassins has gotten very close to American society's core problem.

The Assassins cast certainly goes about its dark assignments fervently. Michael Cerveris is an impassioned Booth and James Barbour an equally impassioned Czolgosz. Marc Kudisch is bullishly persuasive as the Proprietor and Neil Patrick Harris smoothly transforms himself from an easygoing balladeer into a hesitant Oswald. Alexander Gemignani, bearing a strong resemblance to the real Hinckley, sings well -- especially in the show's only (sort of) romantic number, "Unworthy of Your Love." He's joined by Mary Catharine Garrison as a sexier Squeaky than the actual demented young girl seemed to be when she was apprehended. Jeffrey Kuhn plays Zangara's stomach complaints convincingly and Becky Ann Baker daffily performs Moore's antics. Denis O'Hare and Mario Cantone both bring a sense of déja vu to the table, O'Hare raising Take Me Out's audience-courting Mason Marzac a few notches and Cantone giving his usual rant (seen earlier this season in The Violet Hour).

The longest sequence in Assassins is given over to Lee Harvey Oswald. In the process, the musical posits the most bizarre John Fitzgerald Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory yet conjured: Oswald is egged on by the eight other characters with assassination on their minds, even the four who follow him chronologically. The notion is that a tradition of notoriety has grown and that this, as much as anything else, impels potential killers. But the suggestion that, in Oswald's case, it was the promise of the great American commodity "fame" that made him pull the trigger risks missing a more complex, more disturbing truth. It's authentic truth and understanding that the often hard-hitting Assassins misses, almost from start to finish.

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