REVIEW: Assassins (Arden Theatre Company, Philadelphia, PA)
The Controversial Musical Gets A Conceptual Approach, That Doesn't Quite Land.
A musical about all of the people who have attempted to, or successfully assassinated the President of the United States sounds crazy, no? But in the hands of musical mastermind Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman, it becomes something more than just a crazy idea. The show examines the inner complexities and societal constraints that made these people do what they did. Originally produced in 1990, the musical has been divisively received, yet it has achieved an almost cult status among theatre artists. The Arden Theatre Company is currently staging the show in a production weighed down by a concept that feels more in constant friction with the script than in support of it.
Everybody's Got the Right
The show is an abstract piece, and the Arden Theatre Company production has added a concept to help frame the story. The framing device sets us in the basement of a fanatical right-wing extremist, but it is unclear how the titular assassins are coming to him. Are these assassins coming to him as spirits to influence him to become one of them (even though they never address him directly, he reaches out to them), or are they other fanatics that he has met online who he invites over to play dress up. The concept never really clarifies anything, with allusions to and imagery of the January 6th insurrection, the rampant gun violence in the country, and other terrorist attacks that feel shoe-horned in, in an attempt to be topical. The undercurrent of violence is there in the show, but the comparison of these individuals and their choices to larger societal issues did not land effectively. It felt like a false equivalency.
The show is constructed in a way that these characters are not glorified, they're shown as these flawed individuals. The concept, in a weird way, battles against the show's intentionally crafted neutrality about the assassins. There is a fine line between educating and glorifying that the show inherently straddles, and framing the Proprietor character as a would-be or soon-to-be assassin tips that scale into a more glorifying set up. The show has a song to examine the repercussions of these assassinations to the average citizen, but its staged in a way to make it more about responses to generalized tragic events, and thus robs the show of that cathartic counterpoint. Trying to conceptualize this show and make it more accessible to understand should be commended, but this concept felt more in opposition to the piece, than in sync with it.
The Arden does many things well, top among them being their technical aspects. The set, designed by Paige Hathaway, is wonderfully abstract and filled with many perfectly timed reveals. It moves and re-configures in ways that are fun and engaging. Costumes (by Maiko Matsushima) are beautifully tailored and express the era of each assassin well. Thom Weaver continues to showcase his expertise of lighting with some wonderful light shifts and blackouts.
The cast is extremely talented, and when they are singing together as a group, it is near perfection. However, that energy didn't carry over to individual solo numbers and some of the scenes, which made the evening feel a little uneven. Robi Hager is fantastic, pulling double duty as the abstract Balladeer and the very real Lee Harvey Oswald. His vocal energy as the Balladeer is wonderful, filling those songs with a fiery intensity that is a joy to watch. While his turn into Lee Harvey Oswald is haunting and adds an elevated danger to the evening. Another vocal highlight is the song "Unworthy of Your Love", performed by Harrison Smith (john Hinckley) and Katherine Fried (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), whose voices compliment each other beautifully. Fried also has a fantastic scene shared with Christopher Patrick Mullen, where she plays Emma Goldman to his Leon Czolgosz. It's a tender intimate scene that the two inhabit in a wonderfully heartfelt manner.
Assassins has always been a controversial and divisive show and this production is no different. The people sitting next to me loved the concept, and that is what is so wonderful about theatre. Art is subjective, and each individual audience member can have their own experience and reaction to a show. Assassins is a show that forces the audience to engage with the darker aspects of our humanity and our society. It leaves the audience with more questions than answers, which this production certainly did as well. Unfortunately for me, those questions were more about the concept than the morality of the show.
Assassins is on stage at
the Arden Theatre Company
(40 N. 2nd Street)
from now until October 22, 2023.
More Information can be found at ardentheatre.org
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