Are the protesters who violently stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 the contemporary descendants of the men and women who assassinated and attempted to assassinate the Presidents of the United States?
This is the disturbing query posed at the end of Classic Stage Company’s eagerly-anticipated Off-Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s one-of-a-kind 1990 musical “Assassins,” a nonlinear, critical-minded, and darkly comic examination of American assassins and would-be assassins as complex, disillusioned individuals and the cultural forces that (in the authors’ view) contributed to their acts, such as self-entitlement, economic inequality, and easy access to guns.
The CSC revival, which was in rehearsal in March 2020 and has been resuscitated to meet the new political environment, features an impressive cast packed with familiar musical theater performers including Steven Pasquale (John Wilkes Booth), Ethan Slater (Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald), Brandon Uranowitz (Leon Czolgosz), Will Swenson (Charles Guiteau), Judy Kuhn (Sarah Jane Moore), Tavi Gevinson (“Squeaky” Fromme), and Adam Chanler-Berat (John Hinckley, Jr.) .
The history of “Assassins” has been marked by brushes with politics.
The original Off-Broadway production coincided with the Persian Gulf War, which may have contributed to its cool reception from critics at the time. The Roundabout Theatre Company, which intended to present the musical on Broadway in Fall 2001, postponed the revival to 2004 following the tragic events of 9/11 (That Tony-winning revival was remarkable – truly one of the best productions I have ever seen). A 2017 concert revival at City Center Encores! ended with a child playing with a toy gun.
In light of the fatal accidental shooting on the set of the movie “Rust” involving Alec Baldwin, it comes as no surprise that in this production of “Assassins,” all of the gunshot sounds are prerecorded and an advisory notice on the CSC website states that the guns being used by the actors are inoperable replicas.
John Doyle, director of the CSC revival, has earned mixed reactions over the years for his minimalist productions of other Sondheim musicals such as “Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” “Road Show,” and “Pacific Overtures.” Doyle has frequently had his actors double as musicians, which is done to a limited extent in “Assassins.”
Visually, Doyle’s “Assassins” is built around the American flag (which is printed upon the entire stage floor) and an upper level circular screen for video imagery (including the presidential seal repeatedly spinning around like a roulette table).
It is an uneven production, marked by an oppressively downbeat mood in which the comedy is downplayed, puzzling directorial choices (ensemble members wearing prison-like jumpsuits, ritualistically pulling red ribbons out of a folded American flag), and performances that range dramatically in their effectiveness.
The surprise standout in this production is Slater (best known for playing the title role in the “SpongeBob SquarePants” musical).
Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and joined by a roving band, Slater gives the sharpest, most confrontational rendering I have seen to date of the Balladeer, the mysterious folk singer who narrates the sagas of three of the assassins in ballads.
Other great performances include Pasquale’s quietly regal and assured Booth, Swenson’s hammy but spooked Guiteau, and Kuhn’s clueless and careless Moore.
Assassins, Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., classicstage.org, through Jan. 29.