New Rep’s ‘Assassins’ Is A Twisted Joy (4.5 Stars)

‘Assassins’ – Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by John Weidman; Directed by Jim Petosa; Musical Direction by Matthew Stern; Choreographed by Judith Chaffee. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown through October 26.

Before I headed out to see ‘Assassins’, Stephen Sondheim’s darkly comic musical now playing at the New Rep in Watertown, I received a call from a friend, and told her I was going to the show. “What’s it about?” she asked. “It’s about people who have tried to assassinate the president, like John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald,” I said, adding “It’s a musical.” She burst out laughing, then told me I was sick. But in a good way. Which kind of describes “Assassins”. Sure, basing a musical on the moments leading up to an assassination attempt by disenfranchised unfortunates may not be such fertile ground for a musical, as say, “Pygmalion,” but it works really well, especially if you prefer your musical theater with a bit of a cynical edge.

This is the third Sondheim production I’ve seen this year, following “Into The Woods” and “Sweeney Todd”, two terrific productions staged by The Lyric this season. Oddly enough, not only are the songs in “Assassins” more melodious than the other works (which are often dissonant), but it’s a lot less gory than either of the other shows. (“Into The Woods” may be based on fairy tales, but let’s face it, they weren’t written for kids). In fact, the bouncy tunes with the loaded lyrics are what provide many of the laughs in this brilliantly executed production.

The set is wide open and nearly bare, with only dirty bunting from political rallies heaped in piles on either side of the stage, the tarnished stripes of the American flag adorning the whole of the stage floor and the stars (created by bullet holes) taking up half of the back wall. We meet all of the assassins and would-be president killers right at the start, as the Proprietor (the magnetic Benjamin Everett) sells a gun to each of the killers ranging from Booth to Oswald (with wannabes like Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and John Hinckley also thrown into the mix), promising each that their problems will be solved by “killing a President”, in the inappropriately upbeat, “Everybody’s Got the Right”.

What all of the characters have in common is the expectation that they will achieve something that will positively impact their lives, or at least right some wrong that only they can see. But each of the assassins ends up relegated to the same trash can of history, remembered only as crazies or losers by the public. Booth seems to be the most sorely affected, as he appears astonished and hurt that America would view him as anything other than a liberator. It’s the dark side of the American Dream for these sorry characters.

Which doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of downright hilarious moments in the show, particularly the scenes involving Squeaky Fromme (Mccaela Donovan) and accomplice Sara Jane Moore (Paula Langton), who tried to shoot Gerald Ford in 1975. Donovan and Langton are a scream together, showing us what “Laverne & Shirley” might have been like if they had dropped some acid and spent some time with the Manson family. Brad Daniel Peloquin is a hoot as President McKinley’s killer, who is convinced he’s to be the next ambassador To France, and Peter S. Adams as the maniacal Samuel Byck (who tried to hijack a plane to crash into the White House to kill Nixon) is disturbingly funny. There’s also a beautifully creepy and touching duet by Fromme and Hinckley (Patrick Varner) “Unworthy of Your Love,” which is – gulp – really moving. If those previous sentences intrigue you, this is definitely the show for you.

There is no real “star” in this production (although Mark Linehan’s Booth may be the most compelling character in the show), but the performances are first rate across the board in this seamless production. The cast is deep and talented, and the singing and choreography are outstanding. I highly recommend this show for anyone looking for something a little different in their theater experience. For more info, go to: