Boston Lyric Stage’s Assassins Hit Its Target

Ryn Brierley ‘27 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

In a divided America, it is easy to find the messages of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical Assassins to be exceptionally relevant today. The historical musical delves into the lives of United States assassins, both successful and unsuccessful, while offering side commentary on issues such as political division, the treatment of immigrants, and mental health through grisly ballads and emotional love songs. There has been a resurgence in the number of theaters performing this show, which can be related to how applicable the show’s messages are to the modern U.S. environment. The current state of the country is disorganized. Assassins recognizes and uses this to its artistic advantage through its songs and dialogue.

Lyric Stage Boston’s production of Assassins, directed by Courtney O’Conner and ran from September 15 to October 15, handles its themes of justice, governmental power, and mental health with intelligence and respect, portraying a broken America whose prospects of destruction are not far off from ours today. It is played as true to Sondheim’s vision as it can be, yet includes a few original choices that, unfortunately, feel vague and unfinished. The most notable is the decision to exclude the assassins’ notorious prop guns from the show and opt instead for finger guns. This choice may have been motivated by the ever-increasing need for gun control in America today, and showing the audience, by their omission, just what the root of the violent acts on stage were: guns. As pertinent as this message is, the exclusion of the weapons also robs many abruptly frightening scenes of their tension, as the audience is just assumed to believe that a deadly weapon is in the hands of these mentally unstable murderers. At the end of the show, the prop guns are finally put into use, but the switch from not having guns to having guns is extremely abrupt and has no clear intention. If the choice to leave the weapons out was a protest for gun reform, why bring them out at the end? It is almost as if the props team had lost the guns backstage only to find them ninety percent of the way through the performance.

However, this choice does not hinder the production from being an aesthetically gorgeous show to look at. The rustic set, designed by  Baron E. Pugh, is meant to mimic the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag, shrouding the entire story in a disquieting patriotism. The lighting, also designed by Pugh, complements the scenery with ominous coolness and darkness. The lighting and stage design for this production was by far the most striking aspect. It lures and draws the audience into the world and traps them there—for the designated hour and forty-five minutes. The minimal use of large set pieces also allows for a deeper connection to the actors, helping the audience see these historical figures outside of their actual time and as representatives of American society’s failures.

Each assassin in this production stands out in their own way, and none outshines any other. Charles Guiteau (Christopher Chew) leads with an unnerving cheerfulness that perfectly fits his character and Sara Jane Moore (Shonna Cirone) makes a crumbling mother at the end of her wits seem almost relatable; and Guiseppe Zangara (Teddy Edgar) utilizes a strong, operatic voice to command attention. Leon Czolgosz (Daniel Forest Sullivan) employs a quiet power that compels the audience to root for him (until he assassinates McKinley, of course); Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lisa Kate Joyce) is an obsessive murderer and cult member who creates an air of tension within every scene she enters; and John Hinckley (Jacob Thomas Less) manipulates the audience into feeling sympathy for a stalker with his enchanting voice. Lee Harvey Oswald (Dan Prior) educates the audience about the assassins in a mentorship kind of role and then falls under their influence at the end of the show, making the audience feel as if they have lost their one grip on reality. John Wilkes Booth (Robert St. Laurence) shepherds the assassins with a terrifying elegance that positions him as the ultimate evil of the show; and Samuel Byck (Phil Tayler) grounds the performance as the only a Shakespeare fool can, by giving an ironically hilarious yet poignant set of monologues that identify the problems in this country. Overall, each assassin had both strong and weaker moments, but none of their performances were less than exceptional.

A great amount of praise must also be given to the ensemble of this show. They are the unsung heroes of the production, and they give life to many scenes that would be sorely lacking without their presence. Kristian Espiritu, Arthur Gomez, Jackson Jirard, Darren Paul, Kayla Shimizu, and Jeffrey Song have their own chemistry and dynamic that is equally if not more entertaining to watch than the assassins ensemble. Each ensemble member also plays at least one minor role in the show which is usually only on stage for one scene, but they play these roles with great skill and authenticity. The Proprietor (Jackson Jirard) and Emma Goldman (Kristian Espiritu) particularly stand out. Jirard essentially acts as the musical’s narrator, following the assassins and guiding them to their attempts at murder, which he makes an unnervingly fun and amusing experience; while Espiritu is one of the most genuine characters in the production, being the radical anarchist who unknowingly inspires Czolgosz to kill the president. The other ensemble actors perform their roles with consistent attention to detail and sincerity that gives them more nuance than one would expect.

In terms of weaknesses within the show, there needed to be more purposeful choreography. The “select choreography” within the show, created by Ilyse Robbins, was underwhelming. Not all of the numbers in the musical call for dancing, but when they do, there is an understandable level of disappointment when it does not occur. While a few moments broke from this pattern, such as Guiteau and the Balladeer’s brief dancing segment in “The Ballad of Guiteau” and the intimidating group choreography in “Another National Anthem,” the general lack of movement in the majority of the numbers left them feeling unsatisfying and empty. The number that suffered the most from a lack of movement was the opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right.” Not every opening number of a musical needs to be grand and flashy, Assassins least of all, but the majority of this number felt like a lot of standing around and waiting, which does not properly establish the show’s true spirit. Despite this, Lyric’s Assassins still manages to be insightful and interesting in its pure dialogue scenes. But as a Sondheim musical, that quality should never overshadow the music. The music of this show was beautifully directed by Dan Rodriguez and was impressively strong for its small size, although the band overpowers the actors at many moments. It is hard to tell if this is a levels issue or a volume issue, but either way, it prevented the actors from being intelligible at times.

When all is said and done, Courtney O’Conner’s Assassins is a clean-cut and artistic rendition of a Sondheim classic. Its attempts at being more than that are mostly ineffective and somewhat take away from the original’s intention, but do not impede the production from being an eloquent commentary on class, politics, and the failing American Dream.

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One Comment

  1. I agree that the use of an actual prop gun near the end of this production, after the total absence of prop guns for the earlier scenes of the performance, felt unnecessary and abrupt. Consistency is important, unless it is broken for a clear purpose or to illustrate a message that the audience can clearly interpret. Still, this was an overall very well-done production by Lyric.

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