Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

“Assassins” review: A Political Musical Repurposed for the Trump Era

<lass="page layoutArea" title="Page 1">

Assassins is a very different show now than when it opened Off- Broadway in 1990. In a pre-Trump era, the show’s opening lines, “Hey, pal—feelin’ blue/Don’t know what to do/Hey, pal—I mean you/Yeah, c’mere and kill a president,” read as preposterous and drastic, often eliciting laughter from the audience. Who in their right mind would think that killing a president could solve their problems? Today, the same lyrics are met with stiff silence. The audience members shuffle in dis- comfort, all grappling with the fact that it doesn’t seem so preposterous anymore.

Carleton’s production of Assassins, which opened Thursday night, is the first musical the college has put on in my three years here. Assassins is a multiple Tony-Award- winning musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman. The show follows the stories of nine assassins and attempted assassins who shaped American history, asking why we hate, fear, and fixate on them so passionately.

Though it tends more toward the revue style of older musicals than the more modern formula, which typically features a linear plot that is integrated into and furthered by its musical numbers, Assassins is far from regressive. Smart, politically charged, and at times hilarious, this show has found a new place in 2018. This largely student-run production is timely and bold, and it’s apparent through every aspect of the show how much work went into putting on Carleton’s first musical in years.

Despite its ambition, Carleton’s Assassins at times lacks the stakes it needs to live up to the show’s potential. Assassins deals with a lot of sensitive material that this production attempts to handle responsibly. Most of the assassins in this production wield Nerf guns instead of more realistic-looking models, and they never point their weapons at the audience, which is standard practice when acting with guns in live theater. However, one of the things that makes Assassins such a revolutionary show is that it typically breaks this rule right and left, the assassins waving their guns around recklessly. This production’s restraint on this front is understandable in its endeavor to make the audience feel comfortable, but I argue that it would have been a stronger statement against gun violence if this production had been bolder with its guns rather than diminishing their severity. One of Assassins’s greatest strengths in previous productions has been its ability to force the audience to engage with their discomfort around guns. The show is meant to make you think about how prevalent and normalized gun use is in America and also how unsafe you feel when someone near you is waving a gun around, even when you’re almost certain that it’s fake and its wielder is a “good guy.”

Along with its hesitance to go all-out with its guns, Carleton’s Assassins features several tamed-down script changes (with one especially notable moment between Sara Jane Moore and Charles Guiteau) and under-whelmingly mild execution scenes, which also contribute to a diminished sense of urgency compared to the original production.

Though it seems to struggle with the score, this production finds its strength in its scene work. Sophomore Colleen Scallen, who also choreographed the show, is stunning in her brief appearance as activist Emma Goldman opposite freshman Ross Munk as Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley. The two manage to create a scene that is intriguing, moving, and funnier than any version of it I’ve seen before.

Tom Rubino ’21 is delightfully disturbing as Charles Guiteau, assassin of James Garfield. Claire Shugart ’20 and Alli Palmbach ’21 are an electric duo as attempted assassins of Gerald Ford, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette Fromme, respectively. This production also hits all the right notes in the pivotal scene between John Wilkes Booth, played by a dynamic Bryce Bern ’20, and Lee Harvey Oswald, portrayed by John Sherer ’21, who brings an excellent combination of vulnerability and drive to his role. The ensemble is also stellar, featuring some of the best vocal performances in the cast.

But freshman David Bellovin steals the show as Samuel Byck, attempted assassin of Richard Nixon. Bellovin demonstrates a masterful command of his monologues, making the stage his own and captivating the audience. Every detail of his performance is brilliant, from his pacing to his expressions to his accent. Bellovin brings a nuanced vulnerability to Byck, making an aggressive and, frankly, pathetic character perplexingly sympathetic.

This production also utilizes simple props and the minimal space offered by Little Nourse Theater wonderfully. Particularly notable is its adaptation of the choreography in Charles’s Guiteau’s death scene, which typically involves elaborate pieces of set. The red gloves that the assassins wear (two for those who were successful, and only one for those who missed their targets), symbolizing the blood on their hands, are also a brilliant touch, along with the post-intermission make-up.

Innovative, timely, and sup- ported by some powerful performances, this production is one you don’t want to miss. Carleton’s Assassins, directed by Joe Bartkovich ’20 with musical direction by Alexander Frieden ’20, will run for two more performances on April 27th and 28th at 7:30 pm in Little Nourse Theater. The students who put this show together have proven that musical theater is something that can and should be produced more regularly at Carleton.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *