One of Stephen Sondheim’s numbers in Assassins contains the line, “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong. Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along.” First performed in 1990, in the musical based on John Weidman’s book, the line couldn’t frame the sentiment of the piece any better. But there’s also a little something extra in director Nick Mitchell’s new production at Stage 62, as we are drawn to the normalcy of these figures from history. We are shown the hidden thoughts and footnotes of infamous assassins and attempted murderers such as Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth and John Hinckley Jr. “Attention must be paid,” the characters refrain in a nod toward Arthur Miller’s tragic Willy Loman. But these people aren’t to be glorified; far from it. Instead, we should understand that they are amongst us, “voiceless without violence,” as Mitchell writes.
The performers do well in conveying this, and clearly have a good time. Stanley Graham’s Booth was enjoyable to watch, aided by an admirable Nathan Hough as the Proprietor. Elsewhere, Corwin Stoddard and Kassie Doherty, as Hinckley and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, were remarkably unnerving in their ballad. The stage work is impressive, the players working with a grand set design, complemented by the booming live orchestra. It’s something that the Andrew Carnegie Music Hall was designed for, and it adds oomph to the production.
From the off, the piece is dynamic and entertaining. The rousing opening ensemble piece ends with Booth’s gunshot and distant cries of “sic semper tyrannis,” followed by hearty musical numbers, interspersed with witty and sometimes intense soliloquies alongside fast pieces of dialogue.
Finally, I’m not sure who deserves credit, the costume department or the gene pool, but some of these people were worryingly convincing in their portrayals. Wannabe Nixon-killer Samuel Byck is played by Rob James (who’s also the vice president of Stage 62), and his monologues to a tape recorder were highlights for the audience, both frightening and funny. Really, those scenes had their finger on the pulse of the play: hilariously absurd, somewhat terrifying, but fueled with real pathos.