Assassins, with music/lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, based on a concept by Charles Gilbert Jr., is a bold choice for the venerable East West Players to reopen with after having been shuttered due to the you-know-what for almost two years. Staged with a loose revue format, Assassins is about most of the men and women who successfully or unsuccessfully attempted to kill a sitting US president.
The über-assassin highly esteemed by the other trigger-happy members of this (as depicted) kooky club of ludicrous if deadly misfits is the granddaddy of them all, John Wilkes Booth (Trance Thompson), who literally shot Pres. Lincoln in 1865 while he was sitting (in a box seat at Ford’s Theatre watching Our American Cousin). In chronological order when they committed their crimes (although the freewheeling musical isn’t sequential per se), the other title characters are:
Charles Guiteau (the giddy Gedde Watanabe), who shot Pres. James Garfield at a Washington, D.C. railroad station in 1881 with a British Bulldog Revolver. Anarchist Leon Czolgosz (George Xavier), an aficionado of rabblerouser Emma Goldman (well-played by the droll Kym Miller), shot Pres. William McKinley 20 years later at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. The play’s first wannabe presidential killer who flopped is the little-remembered Giuseppe Zangara (Aric Martin), an Italian immigrant who tried to shoot President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Miami a couple of weeks before his1933 inauguration, missing FDR but succeeding in shooting five others, including a bodyguard and Miami’s Mayor Anton Cermak, who subsequently died.
The next purported shooter depicted had superior marksmanship, Lee Harvey Oswald (Adam Kaokept), who supposedly liquidated JFK in 1963. The only charter member of this motley crew whose weapon of choice wasn’t a firearm in our nation awash in guns is Samuel Byck (the wry Christopher Chen), whose 1974 attempt to hijack a jet in order to crash it into the White House to kill Pres. Richard M. Nixon was foiled.
Manson cult follower Squeaky Fromme (the chillingly menacing Astonica Bhagat Lyman) attempted to shoot the man who pardoned Tricky Dick, Pres. Gerald Ford, at Sacramento in 1975. Just 17 days later, Sara Jane Moore (the humorous Joan Almedilla) took another shot at Ford in San Francisco. John Hinckley, Jr. (Arvin Lee) is believed to have been closer to the mark, hitting but not killing Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1981 at Washington.
Sondheim’s (who of course wrote the immortal lyrics for West Side Story) eerie musical explores these criminals and their motives with insight, wit, pathos and varying degrees of historical accuracy. The ensemble cast, deftly directed by EWP’s Producing Artistic Director Snehal Desai, with musical direction by Marc Macalintal, wreak their mayhem from an imaginative multi-level set designed by Anna Robinson, which is periodically emblazoned with projections designed by David Murakami with assistance from Sam Clevenger. The singers are accompanied by a live sextet, enhancing the overall production values of this musical, which had originally opened Off-Broadway in 1990 for only 73 performances, but was revived on Broadway in 2004 where it snagged five Tony Awards.
I saw the latter revival, wherein Mario Cantone portrayed Byck with a mix of swagger, menace and whimsy. Later that night I had the good luck to bump into Cantone (who co-starred in the various big and little screen iterations of Sex in the City, including the recent HBO reboot) at one of those after theater eateries on Restaurant Row and congratulated the gracious thesp on his super performance. His depiction of Byck was far superior to Sean Penn’s in the 2004 feature The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
I’m happy to say that like Cantone, Christopher Chen plays Byck with great panache, and his waggish outfit (costume design by Stephanie Nguyen) captures the would-be murderer’s dark sense of humor. Chen currently appears on two TV sitcoms, American Auto and Young Rock (say – whatever happened to that show?).
Other standouts in the cast include the astounding Astonica Bhagat Lyman, who portrays Charlie Manson’s so-called “teenage slut” Squeaky Fromme with a perpetual maniacal gleam in her deranged eyes. As this bogeyman’s bumbling sidekick, Joan Almedilla is a hoot as Sara Jane Moore, the gal who couldn’t shoot straight. Gedde Watanabe plays Charles Guiteau as being mad as a hatter, adding more comic relief to lighten the rather dark subject matter.
In a double role Adam Kaokept is surprising when we see which thesp portrays Oswald in the denouement. Oswald is lured to do the dirty deed by the assassins’ ringleader, John Wilkes Booth. The imposing Trance Thompson is entrancing as Lincoln’s liquidator, but some theatergoers may scratch their heads trying to grasp why the ensemble’s sole African American is cast as the man who slew the Great Emancipator. Thompson previously played Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime and Che Guevara in Evita in stage productions.
The show has no intermission and runs about 100 minutes. But experiencing Sondheim’s merry if mad and macabre musical is much more than merely killing time. For more adventurous theatergoers, this imaginative, harrowing, gallows humor-type production marks the triumphant return of one of L.A.’s finest theaters. East West Players is back – live, alive and well and I predict Assassins will be right on target, a hit.
East West Players presents Assassins on Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with 2:00 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and 5:00 p.m. performances on Sundays through March 20 at the David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. For info and tickets: (323)609-7006; https://eastwestplayers.org/. Covid documents are checked but there was no social distancing at the sold out premiere.