PRINCETON, NJ – Leave it to Stephen Sondheim to find the cutting edge in the kaleidoscope of American events. What he wrote in 1990 is even more potent today, hard on the heels of the Orlando gay nightclub terrorist attack.
These assassins, from 1865 until the 1970s, cover not just presidents Abraham Lincoln, McKinley and John F. Kennedy, but other well known figures, such as Charlie Manson and John Hinckley, who was obsessed with actress Jody Foster and attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan.
But what are we to make of all this violence? Yes, those who performed these acts were sick and misguided, but in today’s world, how do we counteract the terror that keeps on giving?
Director Tatiana Pndiani said she felt numb after the latest shooting in Orlando. “Has the epidemic nature of mass shootings stopped me from feeling loss and pain?” she asked. “I can’t retrieve from my mind how similar the craziness in this show is to the craziness on our streets, churches, schools and nightclubs.” It’s more and more apparent that no place is safe.
And to see these actors and singers (all excellent) aiming guns at each other and at the audience, we’re caught up, once again, in the senselessness of all that has happened.
Sondheim’s musical is, at times, atonal, at other times quite lyrical with songs about “being happy” (as in “Everybody’s got the Right”) and an occasional love duet. But there’s a lot in it that’s weird and off the wall. The musical would benefit from an intermission, since two hours of concentrated murder is a little hard to take. “ Despite several Tonys, “Assassins” never reached the popularity of some of Sondheim’s other musicals, such as “Company,” “Follies” and even the over-produced “A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum.” John Weiedman wrote the book for this show.
There’s a brief homage here to “West Side Story,” which paired Sondheim’s lyrics with Leonard Bernstein’s music. But many of the vignettes are crude. The entire play, in fact, seems fragmented, skipping back and forth in time for no apparent reason.
Billy Cohen as John Wilkes Booth paves the way for Jared Brendon Hopper as Lee Harvey Oswald to realize he can go down in history for assassinating JFK and, in a semi-dream sequence, help all the other assassins win a glimpse of immortality. Lily Davis as Lynette is the one who follows Charlie Manson ‘because he’s God.’ is outstanding as the Balladeer. Then we have Maeve Brady, paired effectively with Davis in their songs about guns and all the damage they can do. It’s downright scary. Others in the cast include Christopher J. Beard, Jake McCrady, Paloma Munoz, and Estaban Godoy.
Despite its dark theme, the cast brings an exuberance and energy to this challenging production. Vince di Maura’s musical direction is top notch, full of energy and vibrant syncopation. Pandianai has directed with vigor.
Performances continue through June 26. For tickets, call 732-997-0205 or visit princetonsummertheater.org/tickets. Coming up next is “God of Carnage,” followed by “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” and “Fool for Love.”