"There's Another National Anthem, folks. For those who never win ... for the ones who might have been." A line from a Trump election advertisement? No, it's from the Stephen Sondheim, John Weidman musical, Assassins, now on stage at Near West Theatre.
Assassins seems an ideal script for this time of year, as the Republican National Convention has just left town and a general feeling of discomfort and mistrust is sweeping the nation. Political conflicts, racial distrust, police shootings, and left/right disagreements are running rampant.
Assassins is based on a concept of Charles Gilbert Jr. It examines, in musical revue style, men and women who have attempted to assassinate presidents of the United States. The musical score parallels the music popular at the time of each president.
Never noted as one of Sondheim's great musicals, it has some interesting ideas and does contain a signature song, "Everybody's Got the Right to Be Happy." The defining song is a common element in Sondheim musicals. Think, "Agony" (Into the Woods), "Tonight" (West Side Story), "Another Hundred People" (Company) and "Johanna" (Sweeney Todd). They keynote a major element of the script.
The musical opened off-Broadway in 1990 and ran only 73 performances. A review stated, "Assassins will have to fire with sharper aim and fewer blanks if it is to shoot to kill." There have been productions in London and numerous other cities. None of them seemed to have completely dealt with the show's problems.
There are three competing versions of the script: original, London and Broadway. The major difference is the treatment of the song, "Something Just Broke," which was added for the London production, but dropped from the 2004 Broadway revival. (The Near West production includes this song.) Also, in some scripts the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald are blended into a single role. Near West has them as separate characters, alleviating some confusion as to the relationship between Oswald and the Balladeer.
Near West is a family-oriented theater, with many of the cast members and audience tweens and teens. It is therefore surprising that they chose to do Assassins, which contains mature content, gun use, representations of death and violence, and very strong language. It is bold, disturbing and alarming.
But director Bob Navis Jr. decided to put aside the possible negatives, confront the issues of today, accept the language and subject matter of the script, and the result is that he has staged a winner. The interpretation, singing, stage movements, choreography and, most importantly, the quality of the acting that makes real people, not caricatures, of the assassins, is impressive.
Cameron Caley Michalak's massive set works well. Matthew Dolan's musical direction has the cast singing impressively and the orchestra in good tune. Rob Wachala has created unique and appropriate lighting that aids the tone of the staging. Same for Josh Caraballo's sound design. Sarah Russell has dressed the very large cast in era-correct designs.
The cast is strong, and considering they are high school and college students, they are nothing short of amazing.
Strong performances were given by Marco Colant as Lee Harvey Oswald, Molly Walsh as Sara Jane Moore, Anna Parchem as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, Leah Windahl as the Proprietor, Patrick Hanlon as Leon Czolgosz, Edward Gale as John Hinckley, Peter Bradley as Charles Guiteau, Antonio DeJesus as Giuseppe Zangara, Dylan Toth as Samuel Byck and Michel Knobloch who persevered in a long, important speech when his microphone went out.
The Balladeers—Clye Black, Jabri Johnson, Scott Pyle and Nick Sobotka — sang and danced well, bridging the segments of the show nicely.
Though the almost two-hour intermissionless play stressed the attention and bladder span of some, the long sit was worth it.
Assassins runs at Near West Theatre's handsome new home on Detroit Avenue through July 31. Valet parking is available Friday and Saturday for $6; lot and street parking is also available.
Through July 31 at Near West Theatre, 6702 Detroit Ave., 216-961-6391,