As I raced through traffic into Evanston on Monday night to see director Darryl Brooks’ new Theo production “Assassins,” the song “Something Just Broke” was already putting my foot on the gas pedal.
As Stephen Sondheim aficionados know all too well, this is the doozy of a song that the great composer included in this show to reflect the massive social impact of the sudden assassination of a political leader, the opposite side of self-actualizing presidential killers (and wannabe killers). There, a group of ordinary Americans reminisce about what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot: One by one, they sing the song “And I Wondered.” “I was afraid of what would happen next. Something that needed to be fixed. It made me wonder who we were.”
The pithy words that seemed written about the last few weeks were what made Sondheim uniquely Sondheim.
Not exactly God. In the case of “Assassins” in general, it has long been my opinion that this 1991 collaboration with John Weidman did not fully align with the various stylistic intentions of the composer and book writer. In other words, the series dared to tackle something so incredibly troubling, pervasive, and seemingly unfixable in the American psyche that it ultimately failed to match the weight of its own mission.
Moreover, I think what we have learned since 1991 is that the attention-seeking drive that motivates those who point guns at the president is no longer limited to threats against senior executives. In this city, as in many cities, a modern production of “Assassins” will always bring to the viewer’s mind the scourge of gun violence. I’m not sure Weidman and Sondheim expected this. How could they?
But Sondheim was a moralist only when he reached the existential power of love. As it takes you through a parade of miscreants (John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, John Hinckley, et al) with their twisted interpretation of the right of all Americans to pursue happiness, “Assassins” often implies that their existence is inevitable. the counterweight that must arise subjectively to the interests of liberty and the Constitution.
The show is extremely cynical, often an effective perspective for a musical, but somehow it always proves problematic here because the presence of this urge to shoot causes uniquely human suffering. “Assassins” is always difficult to watch, but it’s often worth the effort. However flawed and uneven this may be, it’s still an impressive, risk-taking exploration of the title. Worth seeing by those who love it… Anyway, you know who you are.
Brooks locks you in the room with these characters (the assassins take over the bar) and has actors willing to dig deep. Many of them sing exceptionally well under Heidi Joosten’s musical direction: Patrick O’Keefe is one of Chicago’s finest young musical theater talents, and Neala Barron is one of the highlights of many storefront musicals of the past decade. I didn’t think twice. or so, if I had put up a tile advertising “Neala Barron Sings Sondheim” I’d be there with my Heineken.
Overall, my main criticism of Brooks’s very interesting and intense production is a constant danger with this particular title: the characters are so strange and perversely intriguing that it’s easy for the actors to disappear down the barrels of their guns into their skulls. , at the expense of the overall ambiance of the show. They’re all crazy, but they’re us too, and we need to be able to see that better than Theo. (Theo Ubique, the former name of this long-lived company, has been retired.)
Along those lines, I wish “Something’s Broken” had arrived with all the emotional weight it could carry. I think this young cast, if they can understand the pain of daily life, can bring that with them here and elsewhere as the series continues. In our world, where one person’s self-realization, or even declaring their worthlessness, can mean another person’s destruction.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Assassins” (3 stars)
When: until December 17
Where: Theo, 721 Howard St., Evanston
Working time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Tickets: $35-$59 (pre-show dinner $33) and call 773-939-4101. theo-u.com