Scattered Thoughts on Sondheim's Assassins

A not altogether unpleasant mess of drama. comedy and music

Sep. 10, 2012
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And at some point towards the end, a group of presidential assassins and those who wish they could've been presidential assassins from throughout history are trying to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to kill JFK. Those assembled are led by John Wilkes Booth. At one point John Hinckl Jr. asks for Oswald's autograph. And somehow things have gotten irretrievably silly. Yes, Sondheim's approach to the subject matter of presidential assassination attempts, both successful and otherwise, shows a degree of offbeat humor about it, but more often than not, the musical is funny where it's not really intending to be. It's funny in spite of itself . . . and a lot more funny when it's not specifically trying to be. 


The Rep does a marvelous job of staging the musical in a really stylish way. Brilliant scenic and lighting design by Todd Edward Ivins and Jeff Nellis respectively? Check. Excellent musical staging that includes work by Michael Pink? Check. Long-winded musical composition by Sondheim that makes 90 minutes pass as though they were only 2 hours? Unfortunately . . .yes . . . (the Rep website says 90 minutes . . . if my math is right, the show actually took 2 hours Saturday night. It FELT like 2 hours, too . . . )


The dramatic end of the production was a lot more interesting to me than its musical end, but I expected that because I don't really like Sondheim. What I didn't expect was the gross simplification of things. We're entering a presidential election cycle . . . okay, actually we're in the heat of it right now and that means that we're going to have complex matters simplified into soundbites by marketing types and PR people for both major parties. It's annoying and infuriating. Do we have to get a simplified version of history as well?


I can understand that Sondheim is rendering a story here . . . a sweeping vision of the American dream gone bad, but . . . he's rushing through so many individual stories that they can't help but be gross oversimplifications. Yes, there is some complexity rendered. Time and again, however, one can't help but get the feeling that Sondheim seems to be saying that those who wish to kill the president would have been fine if someone had just given them a hug. Kill the president? Yes, but only because they haven't been loved. Kind of a pleasantly romantic notion, but it oversimplifies the complexity of things in a way that feels A LOT like a commercial designed to sell something abstract . . . and it's not really selling anything at all. Granted, this is only a persistent feeling that keeps popping put throughout the course of the drama and NOT the overall thrust or intention of the musical, but it's persistent enough to overcome the story Sondheim seems to be trying to tell. This is the dark heart of the American dream. It would be much more compelling and A LOT less annoying if Sondheim's work would have respected the bewildering convolutions of human endeavor that hve caused people to attempt assassination.  


That being said, the drama is fun in places . . . Lee Ernst puts in one of the few truly amazing performances I've seen him render. For me, this is right up there with his Richard III back in '03. Here he's playing a guy who wants to fly a plane into Richard Nixon. Sarah Litzsinger is charming as Squeaky Fromme. There's a tragic darkness in her comic relief. But moments like these are few and far between.  


The Milwaukee Rep's production of Assassins runs through October 7th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-224-9490. A comprehensive review of the production appears in the next Shepherd-Express



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