Review: East West Players revives a disturbingly timely ‘Assassins’
East West Players has had a long love affair with Stephen Sondheim musicals. “Assassins,” perhaps the least lovable of the composer-lyricist’s brilliant shows, was about to get its embrace from the company when the COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters to close in March 2020.
After a nearly two-year interval, East West Players’ production of “Assassins,” directed by artistic director Snehal Desai, has finally come to fruition. Sunday’s opening was a celebration of the return to live theater for the nation’s longest-running Asian American theater company and a testament to an organization’s remarkable resilience.
The audience was clearly delighted to be back. But there was a sobering of the festive mood once the murderous parade was underway.
This dark musical, with a book by John Weidman, assembles a motley crew of historical figures who have each attempted to assassinate a United States president. Even with the Sondheim imprimatur, the show has been controversial to produce since its premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 1991. But the daring conceit, so at odds with typical musical fluff, has grown even more disturbing since the pandemic forced the postponement of this East West Players’ revival.
The Jan. 6 insurrection, in which a mob threatened to hang Vice President Mike Pence while storming the Capitol last year, chillingly reminded us that political violence of this kind isn’t consigned to the past. “Assassins” gives voice to the undercurrent of treason and revolt that, according to Sondheim and Weideman, is an inextricable part of the American story.
In a system as copious of opportunity and unforgiving of failure as ours, the disaffected and the deranged will never be in short supply. As the Balladeer (Adam Kaokept) sings in “The Ballad of Booth.” “Every now and then the country/Goes a little wrong./Every now and then a madman’s/Bound to come along.”
The Booth to whom this ballad refers is none other than John Wilkes Booth (Trance Thompson), the slayer of Abraham Lincoln. Considered a “pioneer” among his peers, he’s first in class in this reunion of assassins.
Why did Booth pull the trigger? That’s a question that’s put to each member of this infamous club, which welcomes all comers, regardless of whether they were successful.
A concept musical is free to bend time, and this brings together assassins from different eras. The guest list includes Charles Guiteau (Gedde Watanabe), who killed James A. Garfield; Leon Czolgosz (George Xavier), who murdered William McKinley; Giuseppe Zangara (Aric Martin), the would-be killer of Franklin D. Roosevelt; Samuel Byck (Christopher Chen), a nutjob in a Santa Claus suit who wanted to fly a hijacked airplane into Richard Nixon’s White House; Sara Jane Moore (Joan Almedilla) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Astoncia Bhagat Lyman), both of whom took aim at Gerald Ford; and John Hinckley Jr. (Arvin Lee), the Jodie Foster fanatic who seriously injured Ronald Reagan.
Lee Harvey Oswald (Kaokept, stepping away from his Balladeer role) is hardly forgotten. But his presence is saved for maximum impact at the end when he’s coaxed by Booth to enter the bloody pantheon by breaking the heart of the country with the slaughter of John F. Kennedy.
Review: Jeremy O. Harris’ ‘Slave Play’ awakens the Mark Taper Forum with a jolt
“Slave Play,” which confronts America’s race problem through depiction of experimental sex therapy, is a controversial work making its West Coast debut.
There’s an awful lot of history to cover in a show that runs just under two hours without intermission, and the effect is disorienting even in the best of productions. The issue isn’t simply the wealth of material but the mix of styles (“from burlesque comedy to melodrama,” as Sondheim himself characterized it). The disjuncture between story and song only heightens the staccato feeling.
Desai’s production starts strong on an attention-grabbing set by Anna Robinson dominated by two tiers of booths. The design brings to life the musical’s instigating image of a fairground shooting gallery.
The Proprietor (Max Torrez) of this perverse attraction invites would-be customers to take a shot at a president and realize the dream of becoming widely known. Torrez commandingly delivers this carnival barker’s pitch in “Everybody’s Got the Right,” the rousing opening number that layers a vengeful worldview onto an irresistible melody.
In “Gypsy,” Sondheim advised that “you gotta get a gimmick” to stand out in showbiz. In “Assassins,” fame requires a more treacherous distinction. But the right to celebrity is considered unalienable. To be invisible in America is a kind of death.
The sociology of “Assassins” is most persuasive in the form of a musical revue. This isn’t the first time I’ve wished this dark vaudeville wouldn’t be saddled with a such a tricky libretto.
The dramatic material contextualizing the numbers is choppy. Desai’s production is unable to coalesce the jagged tonalities. A miniature of the set, placed front and center, encourages the fluidity of perspective that’s needed. But finding a style to contain the theatrical flux proves exceedingly difficult. (No complaints, however, with the orchestra, conducted with aplomb by music director and keyboardist Marc Macalintal.)
The actors leave vivid impressions, but the comedy has trouble landing and the more serious interactions between characters seem tentative. Something’s off when the ensemble singing of bystanders is more memorable than key monologues.
Thompson’s Booth, so assured when singing, falls out of focus when dictating his political motivations for posterity. Kaokept, who charms as the Balladeer, recedes into sympathetic vacuity when playing Oswald.
Almedilla’s accident-prone Sarah Jane Moore, who shoots her pooch on her way to infamy, is a standout kook. But the staging leaves her in a hectic blur. Lee’s Hinckley is an affecting loner, but he too gets lost in the theatrical shuffle.
Despite these shortcomings, this encounter with “Assassins” left me shaken — which is perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to the show. In an America where mass shootings have been normalized and political forces are finding excuses for a bloody insurrection, the vision of this musical has never seemed so disconcertingly apt.
Where: David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 20.
Info: (323) 609-7006 or eastwestplayers.org
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (no intermission)
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required. Masks are required at all times.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.