In March, 2020, East West Players production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assasins” was on the eve of previews and about to open. We all know what happened next, but luckily for us, artistic director Snehal Desai, with the help of the cast, crew, staff, donors and grants, was able to survive the pandemic and remount the show. It opened Sunday to a very grateful and enthusiastic audience who, myself included, had waited two years to see this show. And what a rare treat for Los Angeles audiences to see this Tony award winning yet not oft produced show.
With music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by John Weidman, the show takes us through an old timey, carnival game where we encounter the most infamous assassins and would be assassins in American history. At times they are in a sort of purgatory bar where they interact with each other and a mysterious balladeer, who narrates, takes us on a trip through time with the likes of John Wilkes Booth, John Hinkley, James Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau, Squeaky Fromme and others.
Halfway through I kept thinking, “this is the craziest show!” Indeed, a musical about some of the nation’s most traumatic events does seem an odd premise. It’s dark yes, but also funny, touching, and deeply relevant. It is indeed our history, which of course at times is uncomfortable, but experiencing this show is electrifying and thought provoking.
The entire cast is perfection from the deep, sultry voice and dominating presence of Trance Thompson as Wilkes Booth to the precise comic genius of Gedde Watanabe as Guiteau, everyone is firing on all cylinders. Joan Almadilla is hilarious as Ford would be assassin Sara Jane Moore and has disturbingly quirky scenes with Astoncia Bhagat playing Squeaky with a stellar voice. Bhagat’s haunting duet “Unworthy of Your Love” with a nebbish Arvin Lee as Hinkley is an uncomfortable highlight. Adam Kaokept is a charming balladeer and disarms when things take a dramatic turn. Rounding out the cast is a charismatic Max Torrez as the carnival proprietor, a passionate Aric Martin as Giuseppe Zangara, with a blustering Christopher Chen clearly having a ball as would be Nixon assassin and plane hijacker Sam Byck. Kym Miller, Andrea Somera, Michael Cavinder, and Jalen Lum are a tight, strong ensemble playing multiple roles.
The set design by Anna Robinson is a fantastically mad version of a two-story, wooden carnival funhouse of display boxes with doors where scenes and monologues play out. It’s a great metaphor for the dark corners of the minds of these misfits. Projections by David Murakami are brilliant and disturbing. It’s surprising how emotional it is, as we all have our own personal connections to our national traumas, gun violence, the American dream and our communal need to be exceptional. Spending an evening with these villains of our history books, examining their motives and madness, is fascinating and, in the hands of these talented actors with brilliant directing by Desai, exhilarating.
The music soars and moves you, as Sondheim does, with multiple moments where the entire audience holds its breath. Having lost Sondheim recently, this production is yet another reminder of his genius. With all that we have been through as a country the past two years, it feels like there couldn’t be a better time to experience this powerful show.
ASSASSINS runs through March 20 at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts at 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 in Little Tokyo. Performances are at 8pm Thursday to Saturday, with 2pm matinees on Saturday, and 5pm performances on Sunday. Ticket prices range from $50 to $75 and may be purchased online at eastwestplayers.org or by calling (323) 609-7006.