There’s a rule in our car that whoever is driving gets to control the music. When I’m behind the wheel, that often means shuffling through all the songs on my phone, which are ninety-five percent musicals. (A big surprise, I’m sure.) Several of those musicals are by Stephen Sondheim, and one in particular would often elicit a groan from my partner—“Assassins.” I always told him once he saw a production of the show, he’d understand why I love it so much.
After seeing the production of “Assassins” at Theo Ubique, there are now two fans in the house.
Sondheim’s “Assassins” tends to, in my experience, divide a room. You love it, or you hate it. A carnival of famous American assassins who got their day in history or missed their mark, Sondheim uses them as thematic devices. Are they misunderstood outsiders? Misguided patriots? Miscreants? He wants us to see how ideas like the American Dream can misfire, leading to death and heartbreak.
At the center of the ring is none other than the original domestic assassin, John Wilkes Booth. In Theo Ubique’s production, this iconic role is showstopper Neala Barron. A showcase not only of this incredible actor’s emotional aptitudes, but also her impressive contralto-to-soprano vocal range, Barron ensures that “attention must be paid.” When I saw that Barron had been cast in this role at Theo, I knew it would be a powerful production.
Little did I know that this entire cast was stacked.
An equally fantastic casting choice, a perfect dichotomy to Barron as Booth, is the dynamic Liz Bollar as the Proprietor. Kicking off a production where these two share centerstage sends shivers down one’s spine. Particularly since the Proprietor in the opening number “Everybody’s Got the Right” hands down misogynistic snark to the two female assassins, Christopher Pazdernik’s casting here is not to be missed. And a shoutout to costume designer Marquecia Jordan for putting Bollar and Barron in such uncannily similar outfits, visually aligning the gun proprietor and Booth in a whole new way.
If anyone needs to hire an actor who has perfected the chilling Kubrick stare, please look no further than Josh Pablo Szabo. Their portrayal of Giuseppe Zangara is nothing short of, well, electric. Every movement of theirs is articulated with such precise rhythm during “How I Saved Roosevelt” that it actually felt unfair when the song was over. I wanted to return in time, just a few minutes, to experience it again. I’m not sure how to acknowledge for the precision of this number, the direction of Daryl Brooks or musical staging by Grant Carriker or both, but brava.
Jon Parker Jackson, an actor who could seamlessly pull off making Samuel Byck both the comedic scene break and an actual imposing figure—an accomplishment, to be sure. Meanwhile, Charles Guiteau, who fancies himself an imposing figure, is maniacal in his own way. Nick Arceo captures Sondheim’s intention here with Guiteau’s triumphant façade of strength covering the quivering fear beneath. Top it off with Patrick O’Keefe as a Balladeer that easily rivals the Neil Patrick Harris version I’ve memorized a hundred times over, and you’ve got yourself one killer production.
This is one of those moments when I simply don’t have the editorial space to applaud this production in all the ways it deserves. Brooks’ cast as a whole is so well suited to this work that I cannot appropriately summarize them all. The puzzlework set by Bek Lambrecht is exemplary. What space other than Theo could capture this musical revue in such a profound way?
If you have never seen this musical, I implore you to see this production. “Assassins” doesn’t get much stage time compared to the other entries in Sondheim’s canon. But if you have yet to fall for it, Theo’s production will light the fuse.
“Assassins” at Theo Ubique, 721 Howard, theo-u.com, now through December 17. $49-$59.