City Theater Company (CTC) closes its season with a bang by staging the Tony Award-winning Assassins — a show described as “one of the most controversial musicals ever written.” The script openly examines our nation’s culture of celebrity and the violent means some will use to obtain it. The story studies America’s four successful and five would-be presidential assassins through music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman. The show is based on an original concept by Charles Gilbert, Jr.
CTC first presented Assassins in 1998 when current Artistic Director Kerry Kristine McElrone played Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. McElrone is excited to revisit the show 25 years later: “When deciding on our 29th season, I knew I wanted us to do a Sondheim piece. Assassins has always been an important show to me [and] the time felt right to restage this one for a new CTC audience.”
The dark and slyly comic show shadows a group of successful and wannabe Presidential assassins throughout U.S. history, framing their experiences in a broader exploration of American ideals. The show opens in a carnival shooting gallery and moves through various venues including the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Guns are central to the fates of the characters and the overall theme of the show. In fact, one of the musical numbers is entitled “Gun Song.”
The score reflects the popular music of each era as the characters tell their stories through scenes and songs.While Sondheim’s music is often quite syncopated, many of these songs were rhythmic and jaunty like “The Ballad of Booth.” A small live orchestra situated next to the stage deftly accompanied the stage action.Other noteworthy songs include “The Ballad of Guiteau,” “Unworthy of Your Love,” and the closing number “Everybody’s Got the Right.” The latter is a rallying cry which can be taken a few disparate ways — forcing the audience to fully consider what they’ve just experienced on stage in front of (and next to) them.
Director Joe Trainor has placed his actors where you cannot avoid them — on a stage almost touching the front row of patrons, in the middle aisle, and on strategically-placed risers. Kudos to Rick Neidig on his set design and “patriotic” backdrop. The pacing of the show is excellent with entrances, exits, and dialog moving effortlessly.
Trainor is thrilled to be tackling his first Sondheim show: “For a play that first premiered in 1990, Assassins is shockingly accessible in 2023. It’s an incredibly challenging work, both in its subject matter and in its technical aspects. The music and its pastiche style are incredible. [It] entertains us even as it forces us to go uncomfortably deep within our own minds, and our collective histories.”
The musical opened in 1990 to many negative reviews — mostly concerning the subject matter and character focus. Even Sondheim admitted he expected backlash due to the show’s content: “There are always people who think that certain subjects are not right for musicals...[w]e're not going to apologize for dealing with such a volatile subject. Nowadays, virtually everything goes.”
McElrone says, “Assassins is about a disparate group of loners who…find themselves in the same room at the same time, reliving their crimes with relish almost for each other’s benefit, like a support group from hell.”
That hellish support group is played brilliantly by Chris Banker, Daryan Borys, Jim Burns, Adam Cooper, Kristin Finger, Dylan Geringer, Joshua Gold, Aidan McDonald, Paul McElwee, Emma Romeo Moyer, Kevin Regan, Kit Regan, and Brian Turner. While all are excellent, Finger captured the manic Sara Jane Moore to chilling perfection while toting a gun and KFC bucket with equal diffidence. McDonald was a compelling John Wilkes Booth whose belief that “the country is not what it was” line resonates in the modern politic now.
There are several powerful and unhinged diatribes in this play, but those by Kevin Regan — portraying Nixon-threatening Samuel Byck — were remarkable. Juxtaposing a deranged wanna-be hijacker and assassin with a Bud-guzzling man in a Santa suit kept the audience rapt. Could this unrealistic loner really pull off what he says he can? When Booth gets into Lee Harvey Oswald’s head to convince him to squeeze his trigger and Hinkley refers to Oswald as an inspiration for his shooting of Reagan, you know you’ve entered serious satire. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is compelling.
All the cast members bring real intensity to their roles and the subject matter. Even the excellent Brian Turner (The Balladeer) kept his darkly comic narration focused on mental failings and perceived societal ills. His powerful voice both set the tone and analyzed the action.
Simply put, all the parts of this show work together in beautiful harmony not often found in regional theater.Kudos to “the underlings” who have risen to the occasion with aplomb!
Assassins will be performed April 15, 16, 19, 20, 21, and 22.Curtain for all shows is 8:00pm except for the lone Sunday matinee at 2:00pm (April 16). Run time is approximately 105 minutes without an intermission. City Theater Company’s home is in the Wings Black Box at The Delaware Contemporary located at 200 South Madison, Wilmington, DE 19801.
Tickets ($30-45) can be purchased at the box office or online. Special ticket pricing is available for military personnel and students. CTC does not currently require proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Mask-wearing is optional per guest preference. Please be respectful of fellow patrons’ choices. all the box office at 302.220.8285 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for details about the show.
CTC’s mission is to create a body of work that takes risks and breaks barriers — just as The Delaware Contemporary’s is to take risks and push boundaries. Both institutions are invested in promoting the work of local and emerging artists, advancing opportunity and growth by and for the community, and welcoming all those looking to experience art.
Advisory: Assassins deals with mature content, including R-rated and racially charged language. This production uses non-firing, replica, prop guns. No live ammunition or working weapons are used in this production. This production features gunshot sounds throughout. All such sounds are pre-recorded. CTC can provide disposable earplugs for your comfort.
To quote John Wilkes Booth: “There is no quiet desperation here.”