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A CurtainUp Review
Encores! Off-Centre Assassins

Someone tell the story,
Someone sing the song.
Every now and then
The country
Goes a little wrong.
— Balladeer in "The Ballad of Booth." You can change the world.— Booth

Victoria Clark as Sara Jane Moore, John Ellison Conlee as Charles Guiteau, Shuler Hensley as Leon Czolgosz and Steven Pasquale as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins at City Center. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's been quite a year for Stephen Sondheim. His beautiful Sunday in the Park With George launched the re-opening of the refurbished Hudson theater. It was a beautifully staged and performed show and with a run long enough for lots of New Yorkers and visitors to our fair city to see it.

The season also brought back Sondheim's two killer shows (you can take that literally given their murder-most-foul characters): Sondheim's masterpiece, Sweeney Todd , brilliantly re-imagined for an intimate and immersive setting that anyone reading this who hasn't caught it can still enjoy with its terrific second cast. His controversial Assassins made the cut for this season's Encores! Off-Centre summer series. That means here today and gone just four days later.

Since it's a pretty sure bet that Assassins won't move to Broadway unlike some of these concert-style revivals (most notably and successfully Chicago), just a few observations on what you (hopefully) experienced at one of the few performances or (sadly) missed. For details about the plot, the song list and brief bios of the gun-toting characters see my review of the Roundabout's fully-scale, 2004 Broadway production here

To begin with, a clarification as to what director Anne Kaufman did NOT do: Neither text or cast members' appearance were diddled with to make the always uncomfortably relevant show more so. (think Oskar Eustis's Trump-ish Julius Caesar ) And so the "The Ballad of Booth" was sung by the balladeer exactly as originally written for the 1990 premiere at Playwrights Horizon. It's just that when the balladeer this time sang "Someone tell the story,/ Someone sing the song./Every now and then/ The country/Goes a little wrong" it evoked a somewhat different image than originally intended. No wonder the audience at my performance (and from what I've heard, at every performance) burst into uproarious laughter and applause.

There are still plenty of deranged individuals ready to realize their obsessive need for attention and relevance by using their all too available guns to make history as the assassin of a President. Sadly, the pool of these mad men and women today includes politically motivated fanatics whose acts of terror nowadays include mass killings of innocent civilians.

Still, despite its surprising humor, this remains a pitchblack show as done by team Sondheim and Weidman managed to be both chilling and thrilling and surprisingly funny. And Anne Kauffman, who with Marvin's Room and now Assassins lately has ventured into new for her territory, has done a fine job of making the patchwork structure fit the Encores! format of big band on stage, minimal scenery and scripts in hand as needed (the off-center productions have even less rehearsal time than the regular Encores! series).

The cast is uniformly good, both in delivering the dialogue heavy lines and the stylistically diverse solos, duets and ensemble numbers. Though basically an ensemble show, the golden-voiced, charismatic Steven Pasquale is sort of the star since his John Wilkes Booth is a constantly hovering presence whose demented vision is especially potent when he persuades Lee Harey Oswald (the excellent Corey Michael Smith) to kill President Kennedy. Victoria Clark as Sarah Jane Moore and Erin Markey as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme are a riot as the gang of two that couldn't shoot straight (their intended victim: Gerald Ford). Shuler Hensley is terrific as the Polish immigrant Czolgosz abd scene with Pearl Sun's Emma Goldman was even more effective than I remember from the 2004 production. I could go on . . . but just look at the cast list and you'll see what an extraordinary cast was on board for this all too brief revival.

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Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.
Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Music Director Chris Fenwick
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Cast: Steven Boyer (John Hinkley Jr.), Alex Brightman (Giuseppe Zangara), Victoria Clark (Sara Jane Moore), John Ellison Conlee (Charles Guiteau), Clifton Duncan (Balladeer), Shuler Hensley (Leon Czolgosz), Ethan Lipton (Proprietor), Erin Markey (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Steven Pasquale (John Wilkes Booth), Cory Michael Smith (Lee Harvey Oswald), Pearl Sun (Emma Goldman), Danny Wolohan (Samuel Byck); Damian Baldet, Eddie Cooper, Andrew Durand, Eryn LeCroy, Hudson Loverro (Ensemble)
Scenery: Donnyale Werle
Costumes: Chris Ramos
Lighting: Mark Barton
Sound: Leon Rothenberg
Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Encores! at City Center
From July 12 to July 15, 2017
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/15 performance

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