By Anna Holloway
In American history, over 20 people have tried to assassinate a President of the United States. Four succeeded, several others were apprehended or interfered with in the attempt. Nine of these are characters in Steven Sondheim’s “Assassins,” now playing through February 26 at Lyric on the Plaza in an intense production directed by Michael Baron.
Set in an unlikely but recognizable ‘hell’—a government service center waiting room—a group of men and women assemble. Each is offered a handgun by ‘the Proprietor,’ a seedy, down-at-heels man who seems to live out of a shopping cart. The ‘Balladeer’ functions to knit the stories together, beginning with the first and arguably most famous of the successful assassins, John Wilkes Booth.
As the assassins gather, ‘the Balladeer’ enters from the back of the audience and sings their stories with them, beginning with Booth. As we move through history, through the assassinations of Garfield and McKinley and attempts on FDR, Nixon, Ford and Reagan, the Balladeer keeps the story moving forward.
Lyric’s production of “Assassins” is powerful theatre: both entertaining and instructive at once.
Not so much a classic musical, this is a drama with musical support and emphasis. Sondheim’s score evokes periods across American history and explores American attitudes toward power, self-image and guns. In drawing us into their stories, these characters draw us into the motivations for their actions, and we become witnesses and participants.
This is a strong and highly skilled cast. Vince Leseney as the Proprietor creates the seedy atmosphere of an eternal waiting room, providing the assassins with guns and props to tell their stories. Greg White, Justin Larman and D. Lance Marsh inhabited their characters with clarity and specificity, evoking the levels of damage and misery that these men experienced as they tried to fix their lives by killing a president. Lyn Cramer and Natalya Ferch, as the two women who (independently) tried to kill Gerald Ford were funny and oddly pitiable without descending to pathetic. Ryan Blagg’s Zangara was caustic and irrational and came to a shocking end; Mark Jammal’s Hinkley was obsessed and juvenile and a little sweetly creepy.
Mateja Govich was a powerful Booth; in addition to the story of his own crime, he provides the impetus for others. Matthew Alvin Brown was a leveling presence as the Balladeer, leading and supporting the stories, until he became Lee Harvey Oswald in a metamorphosis that is especially eerie to those with living memory of the events. The only one of the assassins to use a long gun, Brown’s Oswald is an unwilling and uncertain killer, brought to the edge by the demands of history.
The technical elements conspired to bring the world of each assassin to life. Set design by Dawn Drake was utilitarian and abstract when needed and realistic and concrete at a moment’s notice. Lighting designer Art Whaley created spaces and moods to support the story, and Jeffrey Meek’s costumes evoked rather than followed each period. Music director David Babbon brought the voices and instruments together in a balanced blend of sound.
“Assassins” plays at Lyric on the Plaza through February 26 with Wednesday and Thursday performances at 7:30, Friday and Saturday evening performances at 8:00, and matinees at 2:00 on Saturdays and 5:00 on Sundays. Call the box office at (405) 524-9312 or check the website at lyrictheatreokc.com.
Anna Holloway is a local reviewer, preacher, and theatre professional who has worked for many of Oklahoma City’s finest theatre companies. Her print reviews can be found in the Oklahoman from time to time, and she posts on the NewsOK blog occasionally as well. Anna has taught writing skills at OU and is an editor for academic and professional documents.