Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman 
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
Musical Direction Jonathan Goldberg
The Lyric Stage, Clarendon St. Boston MA, through November (closed)

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Spiro Veloudos' staging of "Assassins" for the Lyric  is both the work's professional premiere in Boston-- there have been several college and community productions locally-- and the first piece of musical theatre ever to appear on the Lyric's cozy stage.  Veloudos and music director Jonathan Goldberg have collaborated on many successful musicals for the Publick Theatre's summer seasons outdoors on the banks of the Charles,  including sophisticated stagings of Sondheim's "Sweeny Todd" "Into the Woods" and "A Little Night Music" that seemed miraculous under the Publick's large scale but rather primitive performance conditions..

Set designer Janie E. Howland transformed the theatre space into a kind of red-white-and-blue carnival midway, with blown-up period photographs and a screened off platform for Goldberg and his band.  On the side aisles the Lyric was draped in bunting, lending the space the atmosphere of a political rally.  Center stage is a shooting gallery, with "Shoot the President" in blinking white lights. The targets are the heads of our heads of state--- sepia presidents, sleek and smiling.  The Propriator/barker (Jon-Daniel Durbin) calls the rubes up to take a shot at them, singing:  "Everybody's/Got the right/To their dreams."  Discontented young men, heirs of a nation whose founding fathers threw out their King and proclaimed themselves self governing brothers and equals, are tempted to vent their Oedipal aggression against the one who climbed to the top of the heap, the Great White Father in Washington.  There are also two anomalous women assassins from the 70's to be accounted for.

The show's sound is an intriguing mix of period popular, folk songs, ballads, vaudeville and dance hall tunes.  With the synthesizer giving it a a mechanical sheen as well as coarsening and amplifying it, the sound is reminiscent of the hurdy-gurdy, calliope, the early days of recording. This is a brilliant effect, but an alienating one.  Adding to the sense of alienation was the circumstance that either the orchestration or the placement of the instruments and conductor behind and to one side of the Lyric's thrust stage resulted in a balance problem: often singers simply couldn't be heard.     I don't think I've ever missed a line in the Lyric's space before: apparently amplification cancels the advantage of the theatre's audience friendly acoustics.

John Wilkes Booth (Mark Morgan) , the actor who shot Lincoln, is up first.  Booth's romantic death scene is  framed by  narrator Brittin White's banjo ballad "Why Did You Do It , Johnny?" in which the actor is credited with various motives, more of them base than noble, for his crime.  But Booth is the only one of the assassins the effect of whose deed seems to have some real connection to his professed political motive-- even if, as the balladeer asserts, it is the ironic effect of turning the fallible Lincoln into a sainted martyr. Morgan has a rich, affecting singing voice; but it is his scene rather than his song that is memorable.

There is good strong acting elsewhere, too, right down to the smallest roles.  Brian De Lorenzo has a magnetic intensity as Zangara, the would-be assassin of FDR. Neil A. Casey is a baby faced John Hinckley, sweet and nerdy in his knight-errantcy. Maryann Zschau as the burned out housewife/spy Sara Jane Moore and Nicole Kempskie as Charles Manson's love slave Squeeky Fromme play off each other so well that one can almost believe that one is watching a pair of humans relating--: but of course that's not the case, as the staging of their separate assassination attempts on Gerry Ford makes clear.  Ford (David Mack Henderson) trips over his own feet and falls down,  Fromme and Moore are both too wacky even to be able to get a gun to work, and the women end up taking the bullets out and throwing them at the prone president, together.  This is pretty funny, as is Moore's fumbling with her purse and not being able to get a baby sitter at the time she's scheduled to murder Ford. But in fact frantic mothers and klutzy well intentioned politicians are a little too close for comfort.  We've begun to care about them as people, and the laughter's not cathartic.  Unresolved feelings add up to--- more unresolved feelings.  The music never takes on the job of making emotional sense of it all.

In fact, the most moving parts of "Assassins", at least in this production, are dialogue sequences rather than musical numbers: Booth makes a strong impression, strong enough that he can be an inspiration and and influence in a fantasy scene with Lee Oswald (Doug Halsey) at the end that made my hair stand on end.  I felt sadness and waste during a brief exchange between Bobbi Steinbach's warm and womanly Emma Goldman and one of Emma's disciples, played by J. H. Williston, who tries to serve the workers' cause by murdering President McKinley.  I don't know whether the effectiveness of this was the purely the result of Steinbach's reading of Weidman's few lines, or whether it moved me partly because I brought to it a familiarity with Goldman's life and work.  I also reacted to a powerfully vile outpouring of paranoid resentment in the form of a monologue for Samuel Byck (Robert Saoud) dressed up as Santa and on his merry way to off Richard Nixon by crashing a hijacked plane into the White House.

The best musical sequence was built around Garfield assassin Guiteau (Peter Carey),  a chipper small time hustler who has taken to heart all the slogans of success and is mad as a hatter.  Guiteau's music declares that he is on a spiritual journey that will set him among the stars: his path to the gallows is choreographed as a music hall turn, Guiteau's one chance to strut his stuff before a spellbound crowd.  Carey 's performance is both thrilling and chilling-- a triumphant dance of death. But much of the rest of the time the music seems to get in its own way, as it-- accurately, I suppose-- describes emotional states that don't add up, misplaced passions, and dumb bad luck.  This is music too honest for its own good, telling us that the union of passion and order, the harmony of individual and community, that we want our musical forms to celebrate, doesn't exist in  "Assassins"'s America.  Patriotic marches, love songs, hymns, heroic ballads, the eleven o'clock show-stopper of the American musical comedy: all sham, all whistling in the dark. The ensemble comes together at the finale to sing,  with insistent force, "Everybody's/Got the right/To their dreams", and this time we are to understand that it is we who are  the targets of our disaffected fellow citizens, loners who are united in only in the sense that we have taught them all that they must all be out to make a mark for themselves.