As Americans, we are taught from a young age that we can become whatever we want to be. We are free to dream about one day becoming the President of the United States. Others hope to be teachers, artists, or lawyers, while some grow up to assassinate the President. Assassins, a Tony award winning musical by John Weidman with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, explores this dichotomy.
Set in the middle of a carnival-like atmosphere where neither time nor death are powerful enough to stop 9 such assassins from mingling and forming a destructive cult, Assassins flips the American Dream on its head and reveals an entirely different, startling yet human perspective. In the latest productionf rom Merrick Theatre, playing through June 17, a strong cast takes this unique musical and makes it their own.
In this character driven piece, the success of Assassins is dependent on the cast and how easily they can morph into these historical figures as well as maintain this balance of being a disenchanted American and someone the audience can relate to, and almost understand. It’s a challenging feeling for an audience to buy into, and Merrick’s cast does a fine job of making these conflicting emotions a reality.
Joe Mankowski as John Wilkes Booth sets a certain standard as the pioneer of this plight. He is passionate about his killing of Abraham Lincoln and begs the Balladeer (Danny Amy) to share hisstory, let people know the truth. Whenever on stage, Mankowski is commanding yet as easy to look up to as he is to hate. As the Balladeer, Danny Amy is clean cut down to his blue jeans and plaid shirt and excels most in “The Ballad of Czolgosz” and “The Ballad at Guiteau” numbers. His soft-spoken take on the role is refreshing but doesn’t always pack the punch it should, especially in the climactic scene in Act II.
Jaclyn Blair and Cai Radleigh as Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme respectively are hilarious when teamed together as if the stage of killers seamlessly transformed into a shriek worthy sleepover party. Radleigh is also exceptional when she joins Rob Farley as John Hinkley Jr. for a stirring take of “Unworthy of Your Love.” The overlapping of their individual portions of the song makes this number one of the highlights of the entire production.
As Samuel Byck, the man who tried to blow up the White House and kill Richard Nixon, James M. Lotito Jr. reigns with his sense of timing and how realistically he talks to his “friends” as if they are sitting right next to him (and aren’t just on a recorder). Frankie Gabriel plays Charles Guiteau as a flamboyant, happy-go-lucky man with delusions of grandeur. It was almost hard to believe this man was capable of such sinister doings. Tony Kempinski as Leon Czolgosz brings such heart and depth to his character – he’s an angry man, an overworked man, who is also a gentleman.
Sneaking around the stage is a ghostly Proprieter (Mitch Cooperman), a Grim Reaper disguised as Uncle Sam, who unceremoniously turns up when an assassin is about to shoot their gun. While Cooperman may not provide the strongest vocals, his movements were artfully deliberate and significant. Rounding out the cast was a terrific ensemble that provided the conscience of a nation during several newsworthy moments – both amusing and horrifying.
With a set that included a simple carnival like set up and a projector, Merrick’s production included many original projections that were clever and added to the carnival-like feel of the show. While the set did not allow for the assassins to remain on stage together at all times, it was used to its limits throughout which gave the production a fuller feel. Another significant (yet subtle) addition was a costuming change at the end of a moving “Something Just Broke”. While not entirely necessary, it was a surprising and emotional alteration.
Merrick Theatre has taken a difficult piece of theater and made it accessible for audience members (many of whom were outwardly murmuring throughout the production). The clarity and crispness with which these brilliant lyrics were sung solidified the power of this Assassins presentation. While the pacing was a bit clumsy at times, this cast outweighed those weaknesses and came together to create a solid piece of theatre.