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Sondheim’s Seldom Done Assassins Given Exceptional Production at Music Mountain-Must See Production

By John Dwyer

Certainly, different works of art can affect you in different ways, depending not just on personal perspective but sometimes it is the timing. I have found myself profoundly affected recently regarding the latter(being affected by timing) by “Spring Awakening” and now “Assassins.” Kudos to Music Mountain for doing two musicals not often done by community theater due to their difficult and more thought-provoking subject matter.

We live at a time when there is a repressive streak in the country. Also, people are much more confrontational about politics. More so now than ever before. With so many people feeling “othered” and disenfranchised, the threat of political violence is real. The president receives 6-8 credible threats a day and the average number per year is around 2000.

Political dissatisfaction…and a growing number of disenfranchised and violent people are more alive now than when Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” premiered Off- Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in November 1990 and ran for 73 performances, starring Terry Mann, Victor Garber, Debra Monk, Annie Golden, Patrick Cassidy and others. It got mixed to negative reviews at the time. Sondheim was surprised. It was thought that a show about assassination could be a play but somehow the subject matter was trivialized or mocked, when put into musical form. Of course, Sondheim saw it differently. Musicals could be about anything, he thought. In the end, he proved that to be true. “Assassins” is better now than then. And that is because the times are different.

We have gotten used to different, difficult subject matter being the focus of a musical. AND we are more divided than ever and, sadly, understand hopelessness more. Our current difficult times and maybe watching too much “DATELINE” have made us more empathetic to those who would do the unthinkable.

There were other mountings around the country but not another major one in New York for over a decade. The Roundabout Theater Company was going to mount a production in 2001 but the feeling was that the country was not in the right frame of mind to see this show after the horrors of 9/11. It finally was produced at The Roundabout in 2004 and was critically lauded. It won many awards. And, now, it is more understood and felt and makes us think about the American Dream and the frustrations of the underclass.

This is a brilliant production directed by the estimable Molly Logan. I saw Ms. Logan, not knowing she had directed the show, before the curtain went up, But after 15 minutes, I realized she was the director. She shines directing difficult pieces where the dramatic element looms large and where the piece is either controversial or thought-provoking. In the past, as a point of reference, she has directed “The Laramie Project” and “The Vagina Monologues.” “The Laramie Project” is verbatim interviews surrounding the Matthew Shepherd killing. The “Vagina Monologues” are, as stated in the title, actual monologues created after interviews with over 200 women. Likewise, “Asssassins” is also about real lives. Real events and politics, obsession and frustration.

“Assassins” is not just a historical remembrance but a frightening clarion call of our living in unsettling times. And, yes, history, if it doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. Logan and an extraordinary ensemble cast find the connective tissue to make this piece work. Often, it has not worked. I saw it on Broadway in 2004 and found it less than satisfying, regardless of overall favorable reviews from critics.

But, again, pieces are seen through where the audience is at the time, as much as anything else. So, it is not only the vision of Logan and a strong cast that pull off this fine production, it is how we have changed as an audience that makes this show hit home harder than it has in the past. Also, if you look at youtube from that 2004 production, the characters are played less realistically and too often more musical comedy. This cast understands more the underpinnings of feeling lost, angry and with nowhere else to go than I have seen before. IT WORKS!!! and THAT makes this production riveting and so absorbing.

The assassins are, in chronological order and who they killed, John Wilkes Booth Lincoln (Kyle Binkley), Charles Guiteau - Garfield (Michael Gearty), Leon Czolgosz (Stephen Hoppe) -McKinley, Guiseppe Zangara – FDR (Jason Kohn), Lee Harvey Oswald -Kennedy (Patrick Lavery), Samuel Byck – Nixon (Seth Epstein), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme – Ford (Morgan Tarrant), Sara Jane Moore – Ford (Lauren Brader) and John W. Hinckley, Jr. – Regan (Rhett Commodaro). Rounding out the cast are Tristan Takacs as the Proprietor and the following listed as ensemble: Jenna Parrilla Alvino, Nicholas Kianka, Roger Madding, Alison McMullen and Bill Weir. The ensemble in this ensemble show gets a special shout out. All of these players often play leads in shows and have great singing voices. Kudos.

The premise is that we are at some surreal carnival, where you can step right up and “Kill a President” and win a prize. This carnival is controlled by the Proprietor and the contestants are the assassins. Comments being made by The Balladeer, a Woody Guthrie Americana kind of guy.

Kyle Binkley as Booth has stellar presence, dominates the stage as the “assassin” ringleader and has a strong legit baritone that befits the role. He exhibits the passion and theatricality that the actor Booth would have but also shows the deep political convictions he had, as well. Amazing work. Michael Gearty, whose previous work in “Gentleman’s Guide” showed his range, impresses as the mercurial Guiteau who often was gleefully delusional with piques of rage. Patrick Lavery has the dual role of Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald. He particularly is disturbing as the Everyman Balladeer morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald.

Black humor is provided by a comic setup between “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, both who attempted to kill Gerald Ford. Great moments given to us by Morgan Tarrant and Lauren Brader, respectively. It is their fine acting that makes it happen. A true find is Seth Epstein as Samuel Byck. Yo! Seriously…Epstein has great comic chops. His monologue is priceless. Rhett Commodaro as Hinckley, Stephen Hoppe as Czolgosz and Jason Kohn as Zangara knocked it out of the park.

In this piece, “the play is the thing” and the music serves the concept. But, songs that linger are “Everybody’s Got the Right”, “Something Just Broke” and “Another National Anthem.” Frighteningly, “There’s another national anthem not the one you cheer at the ball park…it keeps coming through the ground…getting louder every year… for those who never win…they hear the music…they hear the screams.. the muffled drums, the muffled dreams.” This hits you like a ton of bricks and you leave amazed at the brilliance of Sondheim and appreciative of this fine cast, director and Music Mountain for mounting this show. First rate production.

Tickets can be purchased at Tickets for Assassins in Lambertville from

Photos by John Posada

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