Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins has always been a troubled piece. It doesn’t help that the work, while full of signature Sondheim harmonies and elevated wordplay, only fitfully reaches the levels of piercing emotions that are his hallmark. And it certainly doesn’t help when it’s given an abominable production like the one from RagTag Entertainment at the Onyx Theatre. Musically awkward and directorially soporific, this Assassins is an off-key and fumbling two-and-a-half-hour mess.
Musically the show suffers under the leadership of piano player Julian Lam, who seemed to have little rapport with either his fellow musicians, leaving them to catch up with him at certain points, or with the material—he started at least two songs in different keys than his actors, and had to correct himself to match them.
The show was also glutted with bad decisions from director Sean Critchfield. At one point the show is stopped—literally stopped, with no music or dialogue—while a character sweeps up a broken bottle. This action doesn’t serve any narrative, it’s just a horrible bit of staging. And Assassins has many such moments.
There was no evidence of any deeper understanding of the emotional language of songs or scenes, or how to communicate that through the actions of fully realized, specific character choices. So even though everyone in the cast was singing and acting their hearts out, in the end, any connection between actors and audience failed. And when it fails so completely across a show, I don’t blame actors; I blame direction.
What worked? Ayler Evan as John Wilkes Booth has a honey-smooth voice and a smoldering intensity throughout the show. And Jordan Bondurant as the Balladeer has a nice turn as the spokesperson of the American dream, trying to keep the assassins in their place behind the shiny happy face of Americana kitsch. And when the cast starts the second act with the epic “Another National Anthem” they dip into the well of disillusionment, resentment and longing that lurks behind the show—but such moments are fleeting and much too infrequent.