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All the praise and fame that comes with a show performed at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival couldn’t prepare me for the greatness that is Princeton University Players’ “Assassins.” John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s idea for a musical about the murders of past U.S. presidents is bizarre, but it is just bizarre enough to be genius: You have no idea how it’s going to work, but once you watch it, you wish you’d thought of it. The show takes a political topic and adds the elements of a dream musical; relatable characters are driven to extremes due to circumstance, but remain, even in their maddest moments, infuriatingly human.

Phenomenal directing by Lily Gold ’14 and Izzy Kasdin ’14 stands out as soon as the play begins. In the extremely energizing opening scene, Uncle Sam, played by Brian Lax ’15, seduces the assassins to play his symbolic shooting game in which they win if they hit the president. Although the cast members point their guns at the audience too frequently for this reviewer’s taste, the play is filled with extremely creative directing ploys that turn a simple set into a dynamic experience. Gold and Kasdin manage to keep the audience hooked through everything, from the struggles of a factory worker to the hanging of a man on his own delusions of grandeur.

The simple three-person musical ensemble and the enigmatic voices of each character make staging a play with some of Sondheim’s best music look easy. The combination of bass (Marcos Cisneros ’15), piano (Luke Massa ’13) and synthesizer (Emily Whitaker ’15) works wonderfully, conjuring heartbreak and despair as well as furious passion. The first assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Evan Thompson ’14), sets an intense mood in “The Ballad of Booth,” in which he mourns his last few moments and desperately tries to explain his murder of Abraham Lincoln. Thompson outdoes himself in this role, showing tremendous versatility from previous comedic performances. He remains stoic and strong throughout the play, acting as the voice that speaks to all future assassins and drives them to their fates.

Equally moving are Leon Czolgosz (Adam Stasiw ’13), a struggling factory worker, and Giuseppe Zangara (Evan Strasnick ’15), a Russian who has lived in America and considers himself American but doesn’t feel treated as such. The scene showing the backlash from Zangara’s attempted assassination of Roosevelt is incredibly powerful; he waits to be electrocuted, singing the story behind the murder but finding himself completely ignored as the press swarms a group of eyewitnesses who claim to have saved the president from him. The witnesses’ hilarious dialogue and physical comedy serve as a brilliant way to demonstrate the superficiality of the media.

Charles Guiteau (Casey Kolb ’15) is a charmer; Kolb portrays this overly eager gentleman creepily well. His wide smile and positive attitude turn eerie as he walks to the gallows, accompanied by the balladeer’s (Chris Murphy ’15) singing. Murphy’s voice is incredible, and the musical talent remains strong throughout the play as John Hinckley (Mark Watter ’14) pulls out a guitar for the love of his life. Watter’s portrayal of the nervous but determined Hinckley is heartbreaking.

The comic relief provided by Sam Byck (Pat Rounds ’15) is one of the highlights of the show. Inhibitions don’t exist for Rounds; his ludicrous expressions would impress Jim Carrey. Alex Morton ’15 also impresses with a depiction of a lost woman infatuated with Charles Manson, staying consistently strong through moments of desperate longing as well as scenes of foolish hilarity. Maeve Brady ’15, the crowd favorite, captures the essence of a village idiot, especially as she attempts to shoot her tub of fried chicken. She moves quickly from moments of lazy dialogue and daydreaming to frenetic excitement, embodying all elements of her character flawlessly, and ends on a touching note with the song “Something Just Broke.”

With a stellar cast and impeccable directing, this show is one not to be missed.

4.5 out of 5 paws

Pros: Strong casting, music and directing.

Cons: A couple of mics were not loud enough. 

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