The Grim, Hilarious Carnival of “Assassins”

John Hinkley (Jacob Thomas Less), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lisa Kate Joyce), Leon Czolgosz (Daniel Forest Sullivan), The Proprietor (Jackson Jirard), Sara Jane Moore (Shonna Cirone), and Samuel Byck (Phil Tayler) (Photo by Mark S. Howard)

Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Courtney O’Connor
Music Directed by Dan Rodriguez
Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

Sept 15 – Oct 15, 2023
140 Clarendon Street
2nd Floor
Boston, MA 02116
Lyric Stage Company on Facebook

Review by Gillian Daniels

BOSTON, Mass. – Of the Sondheim shows I’ve seen, this is the most, well, Sondheim. Assassins is wonderfully bleak and hilarious. 

Lyric Stage explores the legacies of the lonely, disenfranchised, entitled, and deranged individuals who tried to share their personal darkness with the rest of the world by trying (and sometimes succeeding) in killing American presidents. Audiences looking for a conventional theater experience will likely be disappointed. There’s no singular, central protagonist here. But why should there be in a show that joyfully hopscotches between eras? 

“There’s another national anthem playing / Not the one you cheer” sings the gun proprietor (Jackson Jirard, also credited as dance captain) who serves as our chilly narrator. Assassins is that anthem. If its quirky depiction of murderers fascinates you, dear reader, please see it immediately. 

Our unheroic protagonists meet and mingle in a sort of purgatory. The show is less concerned about chronological fact and more about image, and, yes, performance. I don’t think it’s an accident the wooden-plank stage evokes a carnivalesque sideshow populated by a very specific kind of “freak.” 

In this space, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lisa Kate Joyce), in full, teenage flower-child form, and a scatter-brained Sara Jane Moore (Shonna Cirone), practice shooting a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. They may not have actually collaborated in their separate attempts on President Gerald Ford’s life but, as the only two confirmed would-be female assassins in American history, they sure seem to get along famously here. 

The show thrives on unexpected connections. Fromme, and her adoration of Charles Manson, is compared with John Hinckley (Jacob Thomas Less) and his claim that he wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster by killing Ronald Reagan. Fittingly, they sing a duet about unreturned feelings, “Unworthy of Your Love.”

Charles J. Guiteau (Christopher Chew), a religious fanatic and assassin of President Garfield, is also a grandfatherly figure bent on promoting his book. His optimistic attitude contrasts with beleaguered Giuseppe Zangara (Teddy Edgar), an uneducated immigrant whose consistent health issues apparently drove him to try and kill Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Leon Czolgosz (Daniel Forest Sullivan) is delightful in his bearishness, sympathetic in his devotion to economic equality, and his adoration of theorist Emma Goldman (Kristian Espiritu). His assassination of William McKinley is treated as more tragic than farcical.

Of the large personalities presented, I found myself most attached to Santa-costume-clad Samuel Byck (Phil Tayler). Tayler is a highlight in how he cultivates the misanthropic, crass figure. This Byck waxes poetic over Leonard Bernstein’s love songs while screaming profanities about Nixon. 

It’s of course weird to watch a musical about “historical” figures when three of them are still alive. As of writing this review, Fromme, Moore, and Hinckley are outside of prison and far from the spotlight. This fact gives a show with an already exaggerated sense of reality another layer of discomfort. How American to turn their stories into a musical!

My own complaints, however, are few. The sound on the night I went was a little uneven, especially at the show’s beginning. This only felt more pronounced in contrast with Sondheim’s infamous use of the minor key. The actors have enough to worry about while wrestling with the music!

One such memorable piece is “The Gun Song,” which includes the lines, “And all you have to do / Is move your little finger / Move your little finger and— / You can change the world!” But do any of the characters presented actually change the world? An American president is, ideally, a temporary position, a face of empire but not its core. If the assassins depicted here succeed at anything, it’s a very public theatrical performance. Its first successful iteration is found in professional actor John Wilkes Booth (Robert St. Laurence, playing his role with oodles of gruesome charm).

One of the many wry jokes of Assassins is a sense of inevitability. The attempts by the titular murderers to change the face of politics seem destined to be folded into the kitschy sideshow of the country. Their efforts, whether revolutionary or unhinged, become just another stall in the grim, American carnival.

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