Both New York City Center’s Encores! series and its near contemporary, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, have appreciated in value and estimation since their premieres in the early 1990s. The mission of Encores! was to give obscure or overlooked musicals new life in one-week runs of semi-staged concert versions. In the early days, that meant actors on book (rehearsal time was also just a week) mostly standing at microphones, with minimal blocking. Over the years Encores! productions — among them Sondheim’s Follies (2007), Anyone Can Whistle (2010) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (2016) — have become more and more fully staged. Seven have moved to Broadway, including Chicago (still running 21 years later) and the multiple Tony Award winner Gypsy, featuring Patti LuPone (2008).
The Assassins produced (July 12-15, 2017) for the fifth season of Encores! Off-Center, the summer offshoot now in its fifth season, was in part a throwback to those early days. More a song cycle than a book musical, Assassins lends itself to such treatment better than most musicals, and Anne Kauffman’s production, like most at Encores!, was right on target.
As in the old days, the audience arrived to find the curtain up and a row of nine floor microphones downstage. Behind each, suspended from a lighting grid, was a target whose bull’s-eye was a 3D pistol — or in one case, a rifle. The orchestra was placed above black curtains upstage through which the targets disappeared as, one by one, the assassins took down their weapons during “Everybody’s Got the Right.” After the opening number, actors carried their microphones off and on, which sometimes worked to advantage — as when Victoria Clark, unusually funny as Sara Jane Moore, ran offstage for hers when she realized she had forgotten it — but undercut the emotion of “Something Just Broke.”
This production was blessedly free of high-tech effects. The only GIFs in sight were at a lobby kiosk, where ticketholders were invited to make their own, a concession, perhaps, to the amusement-park setting of the off-Broadway original. Cutout portraits of presidential victims served as later targets, or in Ronald Reagan’s case dummies that popped up like Whack-a-Moles, spouting Reaganisms, for John Hinckley (Steven Boyer) to miss. Much as red light or blood often underscores the killings in Sweeney Todd, bursts of white light signaled gunshots followed by mug shots, front and profile.
A program note cautioned, “This production is being presented as a concert performance in which the actors may be performing with their scripts in hand.” Actors on book are a rarity at Encores! these days, generally limited to last-minute replacements. For most of Assassins, Clifton Duncan, superb as the Balladeer, was the only cast member to carry a script, although he was never caught sneaking a peek. Then, in “Another National Anthem,” all the assassins cast came out on book, looking like a choir until they ganged up on the Balladeer and drove him offstage.
Whether acting as the voice of reason or turning away in pain at John Wilkes Booth’s racial epithet describing Abraham Lincoln, Duncan (who is African-American) was a standout in a near-flawless cast. To the role of Booth, Steven Pasquale brought a total concentration that would have done credit to Georges Seurat. It paid off in effortless intensity; his moving rendering of “The country is not what it was” was so soft, and so filled with regret. Intensity was also the word for Erin Markey’s Squeaky Fromme, who looked straight into other characters’ eyes, unwavering, as she spoke matter-of-factly of Charles Manson. Dressed in a hooded red gown, she could have been an older, deranged Little Red Riding Hood from Into the Woods. (But her wig was far too clean and blow-dried for Fromme’s scraggly hair.)
Shuler Hensley offered a gentler-than-usual Czolgosz, with a trace of an accent and a look of bewilderment, as if asking himself, “How did I get here?” Though Clark looked nothing like the real-life Moore, her comic delivery was impeccable, especially while being romanced by Charles Guiteau (John Ellison Conlee), cheerful as ever and here a vaudevillian unfazed by the noose dangling before him from the grid. Ethan Lipton as the Proprietor, in his brown suit and black bow tie, looked like a milquetoast, insinuating rather than menacing.
Ensemble members in smaller roles also gave noteworthy performances. Pearl Sun’s Emma Goldman was young and attractive; it was easy to see why Czolgosz would fall in love with her, and not just for her politics. In a stumble-on as Gerald Ford, Damian Baldet looked to his Secret Service agents for confirmation that he was president. Ten-year-old Hudson Loverro (A Bronx Tale) deserves special mention for his priceless reaction and comic timing as Moore’s son.
From time to time, the black void gave way to a sort of celestial diner, with booths rolled on and off and the Proprietor serving. The banquettes doubled as park benches and Sam Byck’s car. Only in the climactic scene, in which the assassins exhort Lee Harvey Oswald (Cory Michael Smith) to join them and make his mark on history, did the stage explode into color when the black curtains became an eight-panel screen of a frame from the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Under Chris Fenwick’s musical direction, Sondheim’s score sounded nothing short of electrifying. (How could someone behind me have been snoring?) Lorin Latarro’s choreography relied on natural-looking movement, except for a jarring, repetitious right-shoulder-forward that came across like a pickup move in a bar.
The last widely reported attempt on a president’s life was Hinckley’s on Reagan in 1981, but the point of Assassins is citizen anger, not actual bullets fired. At the Balladeer’s line “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong,” New York Times critic Jesse Green reported, “applause stopped the show for perhaps 20 seconds.” Two nights later, it was the line that follows: “Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along.” (The audience should have been keenly aware that City Center is a mere two blocks from the Trump Tower.)
In a chilling final image, as the assassins took their shots at immortality, so did young Loverro. Like too many children in real life, he had picked up a gun. As it went off, his face simultaneously registered both shock and awe at its power — and, suddenly, his own.
DIANE NOTTLE is a New York-based writer on the arts, language and travel. She was an editor at The New York Times for 20 years, specializing in cultural news.