Stage Review

Assassins (2004 - 2004)

EW's GRADE
A-

Details Opening Date: Apr 22, 2004; Lead Performances: Mario Cantone and Neil Patrick Harris; Director: Joe Mantello

What a terrible idea: Presidential assassins (successful and unsuccessful, iconic and obscure, from gentleman madman John Wilkes Booth to Nixon-obsessed sociopath Sam Byck) sing their own demented revision of American history, predicated on the arch assertion that ''everybody's got the right to be happy.'' Is this smug shock-art, conceived by coffee shop dissidents? Probably. It also happens to be enthralling. Composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman wrote Assassins 14 years ago, and watched it wither Off Broadway in the run-up to Gulf War I. But Joe Mantello's new production liberates the show from its own hokey pageantry and airs out the genius within: Sondheim's sprightly dirge-ballads, though stylistically rooted in the time periods they describe, transcend pastiche and, indeed, exhibit more elliptical wisdom and ornery life force than anything he's written since. The uniformly sensational cast (particularly Denis O'Hare as Charles Guiteau, the pious, peripatetic failure who killed President James Garfield) takes that anarchic-yet-melodic energy and runs with it. Some will undoubtedly chafe at the show's remorseless manipulations, but those of strong constitution will heartily enjoy watching two pervasive political cliches devour one another: If everybody's got the right to be happy, then the terrorists have already won. (TM)

Originally posted May 07, 2004 Published in issue #764 May 07, 2004 Order article reprints