Blown Away: Four Seasons Takes ‘Assassins’ to Historic Heights

Blown Away: Four Seasons Takes ‘Assassins’ to Historic Heights
Where's my prize? The killers aren't buying what Scott Haden's Balladeer is selling in Four Seasons Theatre's production of 'Assassins.'

You’ve gotta love the way Stephen Sondheim wastes no time in laying out the contradictions in his musical Assassins, like a card shark revealing a unexpected full house. Everybody’s got the right to be happy/Don’t stay mad, life’s not as bad as it seems …  the ringmaster-esque Proprietor cheerfully sings in the show’s opening number—as he’s handing out the hardware to a set of seriously disaffected would-be presidential murderers.

It’s a perfect example of the clever ways Sondheim polishes both sides of the national coin we’ve all been sold: The American Dream—swell that chorus, please—is supposed to be in everyone’s reach, right? But what happens to the lost and hopeless ones? Or the ones who find the game’s been stacked against them? Or, as Sondheim more bluntly puts it, the ones out there screaming, where’s my f—ing prize?

In Four Seasons Theatre’s first-rate production of one of Sondheim’s thorniest, most ethically troubling works (playing through Dec. 14 in Overture Center), we find out by revisiting the stories of our country’s most notorious assassins. If you’ll forgive the deadly pun, you’ll end up leaving the theater blown away, humming the tunes and feeling very uneasy about what you’ve just witnessed. In other words, exactly what Sondheim wanted.

We already knew director Jessica Lanius had a great sense of the visual (, but she scales some impressive new heights here.  Christopher Dunham’s carnival-esque set is bracketed by a pair of scrims, and actors shadowed behind them evoke everything from presidential appearances at world expos to a wisecracking Ronald Reagan and the noose that’ll eventually encircle the neck of Charles J. Guiteau (an oily Greg Reed), the self-promoting wannabe French ambassador who assassinated James Garfield. A movable wooden scaffolding makes great use of the stage’s vertical space, making almost every scene seem like a macabre execution tableaux, while diaphanous curtains decked out in the stars and stripes add a sinister metaphorical sense to one of the show’s later songs.

The cast, meanwhile, is simply spectacular, both vocally and dramatically. It starts with Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek as the sly and seductive John Wilkes Booth, the legendary Lincoln assassin who here exhorts his historical cohorts (including and especially Trevor Rees as a meek Lee Harvey Oswald) to murderous action. Even though he doesn’t get a song dedicated specifically to his pedestrian plight, Bart Terrell gives the sad-sack Sam Byck, the gruff loser who tried to hijack a plane and crash it into Nixon’s White House, an honest sense of humanity. Katie Bates is wonderfully hilarious as the dippy Lyentte “Squeaky” Fromme, the Manson acolyte who comically failed to shoot Gerald Ford—especially when she’s laying on her stomach, shooting the evil eye to a bucket of Colonel Sanders’ KFC. She’s matched in sheer daffiness by MTM executive director Meghan Randolph, as the klutzy housewife Sara Jane Moore, who wields her .38 with all the skill of a stooge. When the cast of assassins unites to sing “Another National Anthem,” they stalk the stage like a set of misfit Avengers, their eyes a riveting mixture of the macabre and menacing.  

Four Seasons’ production runs the same tricky risk as the original did when it opened back in 1990, even though the modern divide between the ninty-nine and one percenters gives the musical’s message additional heft. Let’s put it this way: When Bates’ Fromme asks Micah Herstand’s John Hinckley Jr. if he can play “Sympathy for the Devil” on his guitar, she’s gotta be at least somewhat aware that Sondheim’s been spinning the tune since the show’s opening note. Humanizing murderers, no matter how sympathetic and/or patriotic the motives that drove them to their crimes, is an uneasy and dangerous proposition at best. Especially at a point in history where gun violence has never been more pervasive and problematic. Lanius is clearly aware of this—it’s why she inserts a radio-broadcast reference to Gabrielle Giffords, the most recent U.S. politician to survive an assassin’s bullet into the song “Something Just Broke,” the tune that was added to the Assassins 2004 Broadway revival to balance the show’s tone. It’s a striking reminder of the real emotional cost of those who “pull their little finger” and take matters into their own hands. And it’s also likely why Lanius has her actors skip the curtain call. While these performances are amazing and absolutely deserving of thunderous applause, she knows these characters aren’t really deserving of taking any kind of victory lap at all.  

“Some men have everything and some have none/and that’s just fine,” Scott Haden’s Balladeer croons as he spins the tale of the misguided working man who assassinated William McKinley.  Four Seasons’ stellar production reminds us that it’s still true—and anything but.