Pasquale’s Booth, bitterly renouncing the South’s Civil War capitulation, sings of “how the end doesn’t mean that it’s over, how surrender is not the end.” The notion of demented grievance metastasizing into violence asserts itself over and over in director John Doyle’s gut punch of an off-Broadway production, which marked its official opening Sunday.
Whether it’s the breathtaking turn of Will Swenson, demonically high-stepping his way to the gallows as James Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau, or Wesley Taylor’s ferocious Giuseppe Zangara, whining that he tried to shoot FDR because his stomach hurt, a relentlessly dark vein of America is tapped. A country rife with deranged dissenters marching to the beat, as the musical declares, of “another national anthem.”
Enacted on a platform emblazoned with traditional patriotic symbols, this “Assassins” speaks to a wide-ranging consideration on New York stages this fall of the metaphorical holes in the Stars and Stripes. The rifts wrought by inequality are on galvanizing display, for instance, in Roundabout Theatre Company’s moving revival of the 2003 musical “Caroline, or Change,” anchored by a wrenchingly uncompromising Sharon D. Clarke. At the Public Theater, a new musical based on the 2007 film “The Visitor” examines the fresh human tragedies generated by the nation’s broken immigration system.
And pursuing a more irreverent tack, performance artist Kristina Wong recounts taking on a coronavirus prevention mission that the government should have been championing early in the pandemic, in the New York Theatre Workshop’s “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord.”
The markers of a nation dangerously divided against itself crop up time and again in these productions. “Caroline, or Change,” with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, opens in the Lake Charles, La., of Kushner’s youth — with the central image of a Confederate statue on Fly Davis’s eye-filling set. I had to check back to see whether this wildly timely element was previously part of this 18-year-old musical, and gosh darn it if Kushner and Tesori had not prefigured the issue of removing symbols of the Civil War as a headline of the 2020s.
Director Michael Longhurst — who staged a version of the production, with Clarke, in London before the pandemic — has mounted a Broadway “Caroline” to stir the soul. What a startling channeler of musical theater Kushner and Tesori came up with: the hardships of a Black woman in 1963, working as a housekeeper for a Jewish family. Clarke’s hard-pressed Caroline is her own woman: strong and sullen, resentful of her lot yet fiercely invested in values and institutions that somehow sustain her.
Tesori’s eclectic score, a fusion of blues and pop and operatic recitative, has a depth of flavor expertly conveyed by Clarke and the cast — most notably Samantha Williams as Caroline’s eldest child, and Caissie Levy as Caroline’s employer. The dazzling conceit that defines Caroline’s workplace, a basement of anthropomorphic appliances, remains thrilling. In designer Davis’s serendipitous soap-bubble costume, the Washing Machine (Arica Jackson) agitates delightfully, to be joined by a crackerjack treble-toned Radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles) and a sublime Dryer (Kevin S. McAllister).
It’s Caroline’s financial and emotional turmoil that drive “Caroline, or Change” — an anger complicating her relationship with the needy little boy, Noah (Gabriel Amoroso), in the house she keeps. Her explosive aria near evening’s end puts music to the story of a life stifled by poverty and inequity. An audience is lifted up in the telling — that is, those who don’t misguidedly deny the effects of racial injustice, and can acknowledge the suffering of Black people.
In both “The Visitor” and “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” the rips in the seams of national unity loom large. With songs by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and book by Yorkey and Kwame Kwei-Armah, “The Visitor” is the account of a disaffected professor, restored to vigor in the fight to free a young man jailed on immigrant violations — an American in all but passport. David Hyde Pierce delivers a stoically precise performance as the academic in an evening directed by Daniel Sullivan that nevertheless relies too heavily on editorial indignation. (Though Jacqueline Antaramian adds emotional heft as the anguished mom of the detainee, played affectingly by Ahmad Maksoud.)
In her pleasurable solo show, Wong pinpoints, in a less solemn fashion, the ironies of being an Asian American subjected to the irrational rages of her fellow citizens. Her vivacious account of assembling a nationwide army of “Aunties” to sew about 350,000 coronavirus masks (!) in their homes is punctuated by tales of the bigoted backlash she sometimes encountered.
How, one wonders, did we get to this bilious precipice? Strange as it sounds, “Assassins” knows how: This masterwork, which once seemed to some so extreme that it sparked outcries of being an incitement, now appears to have its finger on a bizarre American pulse.
Pay attention to what’s going on in the news these days. Then listen to the characters of “Assassins” based in this smashing cast on actual plotters of presidential assassinations: Judy Kuhn’s comically flaky Sara Jane Moore, Andy Grotelueschen’s manic Samuel Byck, and Brandon Uranowitz’s brooding Leon Czolgosz.
Maybe, though, the most chilling words in “Assassins” are the ones Sondheim put down three decades ago, in an effort to reassure audiences of the country’s resilience. “Doesn’t stop the story,” sings the all-American Balladeer, Ethan Slater. “Story’s pretty strong. Doesn’t change the song.” These days, you’re compelled to think about how many refrains the song has left.
Assassins, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman. Directed and designed by John Doyle. Music director, Greg Jarrett; costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, Jane Cox and Tess James; sound, Matt Stine and Sam Kusnetz. About 90 minutes. Through Jan. 29 at Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., New York. The run is mostly sold out, but there is a daily lottery for a limited number of $15 seats on todaytix.com.
Caroline, or Change, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Michael Longhurst. Choreography, Ann Yee; lighting, Jack Knowles; music direction, Joseph Joubert; sound, Paul Arditti. About 2½ hours. $49-$250. Through Jan. 9 at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York. 212-719-1300. roundabouttheatre.org.
The Visitor, music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Yorkey. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Choreography, Lorin Latarro; sets, David Zinn; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; sound, Jessica Paz and Sun Hee Kil; music direction, Rick Edinger. About 90 minutes. $90. Through Dec. 5 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. 212-539-8500. publictheater.org.
Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, written and performed by Kristina Wong. Directed by Chay Yew. Set, Junghyun Georgia Lee; costume, Linda Cho; lighting, Amith Chandrashaker; sound, Mikhail Fiksel. About 90 minutes. $35. Through Nov. 21 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St., New York. 212-460-5475. nytw.org.