This is one strange musical. There, I said it. So I can understand why so many people vehemently or mildly dislike Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. I truly can, but I have to admit my love of Sondheim’s wit and lyrics, along with his unique musical sensibility always wins me over. He is able to create something out of the oddest idea, that is just so fascinating. Assassins which first was scheduled to make its Broadway debut in September of 2001 had the very worse timing you could possibly imagine. The content was seen as too perplexing in light of the attacks on September 11th, 2001, so the opening was postponed until the spring of 2004, hoping the world would be ready for a show that would explore the numerous assassination attempts on American Presidents.
The timing is still a perplexing affair. After the magnificent but unfairly protested Julius Caesar that graced the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, Assassins resonates on a very different level. The Public Theater envisioned Caesar as a Trump-like buffoon and proceeded to have him assassinated by Brutus for the ‘good of the country’. In the New York City Center’s Encore! Off-Center’s production, there are many a moment when the character tries to sell a similar scenario, with far too many parallels to our modern day situation. At times, it feels dangerous (and I mean that in the best of all possible ways) and hilarious at the same time. I had seen the perfect and slick Roundabout revival back in 2004 starring Michael Cerveris (John Wilkes Booth) and Neil Patrick Harris (as both the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald), and fell in love with the insanity of it all. This time round, it doesn’t seem to click and punch in the same manner. Some characters don’t seem as funny as before, so I’m wondering: Is it Anne Kauffman’s direction of this production? Or is it is because we are hearing this musical at this specific time and place, with that man as the President?
The Balladeer on the other hand, played by Clifton Duncan (Encores!’s Lost in the Stars), is strong as one of many singing the marvelous song, “Another National Anthem” but is a bit shaky in his vocal capacity when performing the Ballads. He starts out powerfully when he joins Pasquale’s Booth in the exquisite “The Ballad of Booth”, but wavers in his strength and presence with John Ellison Conlee’s Guiteau to sing the Ballad of his story, the murder of President Garfield in 1881. With an assist from the entire cast, he performs the odd “The Ballad of Czolgosz” quite well, chronicling the assassination attempt on President McKinley in 1901, but is not as solid as one would hope. Shuler Hensley (Broadway’s Young Frankenstein) as Leon Czolgosz and Alex Brightman (School of Rock) as Guiseppe Zangara who failed in his assassination attempt of President Roosevelt in 1933 are wasted a bit here. This is one of the curses of being in an Encores! production. Every part, big and small, tends to be filled by someone amazing, so those stars that get the lesser roles end up leaving us wanting more.