Review: The East West Gambler Assassins Prove Sondheim’s Musical Has New Relevance in Our Time

The East West Players production of Stephen Sondheim and the brilliant jagged pill of a John Weidman musical killers is stimulating and heartbreaking. he threw rails on stage with an enraged right, depicting the four men who shot and killed sitting US presidents and the two men and two women who failed. Although unpolished in places, the exemplary staging and a committed cast make it an essential production.

A toy box sits in the middle of the stage where children play with dolls and put them in their collection box. Behind them, a large representation of this box becomes the setting. Enter an owner (Max Torrez) who offers lost souls to play at the shooting range. But these aren’t dolls in the gallery, these are living, breathing American presidents. The owner hands a gun to these disenfranchised and convinces them that with a gun they can become important. The “presidents” in the gallery make fun of the shooters. John F. Kennedy wears a dress and Ronald Reagan an S&M suit. With the opening song, Sondheim proclaims the mantra “Everybody’s Got the Right (to Be Happy)” even if you have to destroy the world to get your euphoria. The Balladeer (Adam Kaokept) tells the stories of those frustrated people who expected all their dreams to come true and refused to accept that life isn’t always fair.

Sondheim’s score blends Americana motifs to present a sound as American as apple pie. Banjos, mandolins and other rare instruments in the typical orchestra bring a flavor of security and tranquility to clash over the subject of cold-blooded murder – or the nobler word, Assassination, according to John Wilkes Booth (Trance Thompson). Weidman’s book is a bit episodic, and not all the humor lands, but it humanizes the characters so we can understand their reasoning, however biased.

Gedde Watanabe’s portrayal of Charles Guiteau, who tracked down and killed James Garfield, captures the vertigo of a delusional man believing he can accomplish anything, only to have the door shut in his face. Aric Martin has belting voice as Giuseppe Zangara, the man who tried to kill FDR to soothe a stomach ache. Kaokeptk’s warm and comforting style makes it perfect for the Balladeer. When he takes off his plaid shirt to transform into Lee Harvey Oswald in the final scene, he quivers with despair. The stunt double Maya Nahree McGowan was wonderfully daffy as Sara Jane Moore, the housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown who sets her sights on Gerald Ford. Astoncia Bhagat Lyman is eccentric and childlike as another poisoned wife of Charles Manson, Squeaky Fromme, who also failed to kill Ford a few weeks before Moore. She captures Squeaky’s bewildered spirit, but some of her lines are swallowed up by her quick delivery. This problem also occurs with several other players, and music director Marc Macalintal and director Snehal Desai could have solved it without sacrificing character. This was exacerbated by some issues with Cricket Myers’ sound design during the performance I attended. As a whole, however, the united voices in chorus were very strong.

Desai has created a visual feast. Anna Robinson’s toy box and lighting by Wesley Charles Chews accompany stunning projections by David Murakami, who transform the wooden box into American flags, carnival stalls and images of the executions of two assassins. During “Unworthy of Your Love”, John Hinckley Jr.’s ode to Jodie Foster and Charlie Manson (sung by Bhagat and Arvin Lee), psychedelic colors then obscure Foster’s angelic face and Manson’s animal face.

March 2020 saw the closure of the American theater, and one victim was the cancellation of this production killers. Now, nearly two years later, events that would have been unthinkable at the time loom over this production, giving it chilling context and relevance: the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. If the production had filmed in 2020, the visual of Samuel Byck (Christopher Chen) sitting on a toilet seat wearing a baggy, disheveled Santa costume wouldn’t have evoked memories of the QAnon Shaman grabbing the American flag, yelling and yelling, in a raccoon costume, and essentially stating the line that Byck shouts in the finale, “Where’s my prize?” killers no longer represents the fringe, but a fraying fabric of our current society.