Theater Review: ASSASSINS (Lyric Stage Company)

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by Lynne Weiss on September 26, 2023

in Theater-Boston,Theater-Regional


The premise is simple: Each of nine people who have tried to kill or who actually have killed an American president is given a chance to persuade us of his or her higher purpose. Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins is an entertainment—in the bygone sense of revues and follies built around specialty acts.

Dan Prior and Robert St. Laurence

A great piece of theater is one that engages you while you watch and leaves you with questions to ponder when it’s over. The Lyric Stage production, directed by Artistic Director Courtney O’Connor, does both. Popular forms of American music—Civil War ballads, barbershop, spirituals, a cappella, Sousa-style marches and singer-songwriter folk of the 1970s—undergirds Sondheim’s score, and Baron E. Pugh‘s barn-like backdrop—striped in shades of faded red and blue evoking Old Glory—underscore that this musical portrayal of nine presidential assassins and would-be assassins is a quintessentially American story.

Dan Prior and Company

Rachel Padula-Shufelt‘s period costumes portray nearly 125 years of U.S. history with everything from stovepipe hats to suspenders to a Santa suit to love beads to down vests. Through most of the play, we have crooked fingers for guns, the kinds of gestures children make. This is a play about the people who fired the real guns represented by those crooked fingers and why they did so. All these factors—the set, the costumes, the music—create an air of comforting nostalgia, and yet we are dealing with killers. And killers need Pugh‘s unique lighting which creates a burning barn, an oncoming train, and an execution by electric chair.

Jacob Thomas Less, Lisa Kate Joyce, Daniel Forest Sullivan,
Jackson Jirard, Shonna Cirone, Phil Tayler

A Balladeer (Dan Prior) serves as a narrator while The Proprietor (Jackson Jirard), a quasi-narrator, is the arms dealer for the assassins, some of whom are gung ho from the get go, and some of whom require a bit of encouragement to finally put a finger on the trigger.

Robert St. Laurence, Christopher Chew, and Daniel Forest Sullivan

The story is bookended by the gripping performance of Robert St. Laurence as John Wilkes Booth and the chilling desperation of Mr. Prior as Lee Harvey Oswald, both of whom enter into an unholy metaphysical alliance late in the second act that allows these past, present, and future assassins to fully realize and embrace the right to their dreams as well as to have some sunshine (“Well, maybe not the sun, but one of its beams”). Other successful assassins are Charles J. Guiteau (Christopher Chew), who assassinated President Garfield in 1881 and Leon Czolgosz (Daniel Forest Sullivan), who shot and killed President McKinley in 1901. (Czolgosz idolized Emma Goldman [Kristian Espiritu], who offers comfort to the downcast penniless Polish immigrant, one of many moments that illuminate the humanity of these misfits.)

Robert St. Laurence, Dan Prior and the cast

Also sharing their stories through song are would-be assassins Giuseppe Zangara (Teddy Edgar), who made an attempt on the life of president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933; Samuel Byck (Phil Tayler), who tried to kill President Nixon in 1974; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lisa Kate Joyce) and Sara Jane Moore (Shonna Cirone), both of whom botched efforts to shoot President Gerald Ford in 1975; and finally, John Hinckley (Jacob Thomas Less), who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. These characters who lived in different times and places sometimes appear on the stage together in darkly humorous accounts of their lives—humorous but sad.

Daniel Forrest Sullivan and the cast

Musical Director Dan Rodriguez is responsible for the beautifully delivered solos and superlative live orchestra (Rodriguez on keys, Louis Toth, winds; Paul Perfetti, brass; and Doug Lippincott, percussion). Also noteworthy are Ensemble singers Arthur Gomez, Darren Paul, Kayla Shimizu, and Jeffrey Song.

Daniel Forrest Sullivan and Kristian Espiritu

What do they have in common? Not a lot. Foreign-born and native-born; male and female; young and old; ambitious and hopeless. Politics are generally irrelevant: as Edgar sings in his rich tenor as Zangara:

You think I am left?
No left, no right,
No anything!
Only American!

Teddy Edgar as Zangara

These people were dissatisfied for many reasons. Their efforts to achieve the American Dream are stymied by bad reviews, lack of book sales, horrible jobs, bad marriages, and a simple inability to be seen and heard. Booth offers a fitting quotation to Oswald from Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman—another play about pursuing the American Dream that places characters from different times on the stage at once—“Attention must be paid.”

Lisa Kate Joyce, Jeffrey Song, Shonna Cirone

Attention is what these characters long for and what they hope to achieve through their acts of assassination. Ironically, while some names, such as Booth and Oswald, have made their mark on history, most of the rest have fallen into obscurity.

Phil Tayler

Booth quotes another famous American—Henry David Thoreau—when he tells Oswald that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” We have to wonder what causes that desperation. Is it the lie that success is available to everyone? Is it the allure of fame by any means? Is it the desire to destroy the lives of those who seem to have achieved the impossible (American) dream? We will never know for sure, but it’s certainly true that “Attention must be paid.”

photos by Mark S. Howard

Lyric Stage Company of Boston
140 Clarendon Street in Boston
ends on October 15, 2023
for tickets, call 617.585.5678 or visit Lyric

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank October 10, 2023 at 9:56 am



Tony Frankel October 11, 2023 at 1:36 pm

It is one hour forty-five minutes with no intermission.


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