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Critics Say 'Assassins' Will Have to Bite the Bullet : Stage: Some reviewers find Stephen Sondheim's Off Broadway musical fails to hit the target.

January 29, 1991|DAVID J. FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stephen Sondheim's new musical "Assassins," about nine killers or would-be killers of American Presidents, is a misfire in the opinion of most reviews that appeared Monday.

The 90-minute, eight-song revue, which has been previewing Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, opened Sunday night. It is Sondheim's first musical since his moderately successful "Into the Woods," which was loosely based on fairy tales. Several critics were quick to acknowledge occasional moments of brilliance in the new show. Some suggested its dark subject is one of the most daring ever attempted in American musical theater.

Despite the reviews, a spokesman for Playwrights Horizon said the musical will play as scheduled to its Feb. 16 closing date. The show has been sold out since previews began, reflecting the strong appeal of Sondheim's work among the theater crowd.

New York Times reviewer Frank Rich said the work has the "potential to be an extraordinarily original piece of theater. Unfortunately, that potential is unfulfilled."

Rich said, "No one in the American musical theater but Stephen Sondheim could have created the chorus line that greets--or should one say affronts?--the audience at the beginning and end of 'Assassins' . . . ". Rich then describes the "motley" assortment of gun-toting figures, ranging from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, who sing a lyric, "Everybody's got the right to their dreams."

"To Mr. Sondheim, the dreams of presidential assassins seem not so much different from those empty all-American dreams of stardom he enshrined in 'Gypsy,': these killers want to grab headlines . . . see their name in lights."

"Sondheim's 'Assassins' Off-Target" was the headline in the New York Post. Reviewer Clive Barnes wrote, "It adds up to an odd, uncertain evening."

In Newsday, critic Linda Winer said the doubters had been wrong when they said Sondheim couldn't write a musical about a murdering barber, "Sweeney Todd." Or that he couldn't write about the opening of trade with Japan, "Pacific Overtures" or the \o7 angst \f7 of an Impressionist painter, "Sunday in the Park With George." Writing of "Assassins," however, she said: "Unfortunately, this time the doubters were right."

USA Today critic David Patrick Stearns used the phrase "gleeful bad taste."

The show business trade paper Variety quipped even though many gunshots are fired, "few of them hit their mark."

One favorable review came from the Associated Press' Michael Kuchwara who called the musical "unnerving . . . It's a brilliant show, filled with dark, demented humor."

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