Nearly thirty years after its premiere, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins still astonishes. An audacious meet-up of nine successful and would-be presidential assassins – from the narcissist John Wilkes Booth to the unassuming Lee Harvey Oswald — America’s “most wanted” musical takes on urgent new life at Signature Theatre under the direction of Artistic Director and Co-Founder Eric Schaeffer. Darkest tragedy interwoven with vaudevillian black comedy animates this terrific production.
A talented and well-cast ensemble give splendid voice and meaning to Sondheim’s extraordinary songs and John Weidman’s trenchant book. Whether motivated by real-life political grievances or their own messianic delusions, each of these assassins forces us to think about why and under what circumstances an ordinary individual would attempt such an extraordinary act.
What unites this disparate band over time and space is their utter lack of agency. “The Ballad of Booth,” asks what underlaid Booth’s malaise. Was it bad reviews as an actor or his fury over the Lost Cause, or both? The American dream of prosperity proved cruelly unattainable for Leon Czolgosz, murderer of William McKinley, and Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara, whose bullets missed Franklin Roosevelt but killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Unrequited love prompted the demented actions of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and John Hinckley. “Unworthy of Your Love” is their weirdly tender paean to their beloveds, mass murderer Charles Manson and the actress Jodie Foster.
Virtually everyone in this fine production deserves a rave. Vincent Kempski as the vainglorious Booth is the pioneer and ringleader, goading the others on to assume their exalted place in history. In “The Gun Song” he and others ruminate on how easy it is to “move your little finger to change the world.” Lawrence Redmond as the soulful Czolgosz moves us closer to empathy than perhaps any other character. His brief but gorgeous scene with his idol, the radical Emma Goldman (Maria Rizzo), offers a convincing case for class war.
Tracy Lynn Olivera is hilarious as the hapless Sara Jane Moore, who roots frantically through her oversize bag for her gun and then ends up throwing bullets at Gerald Ford when she can’t shoot him. For sheer nuttiness, it’s hard to beat Bobby Smith’s portrayal of the delusional Charles Guiteau, an all-around loser who shoots James Garfield when the president refuses to name him Ambassador to France. “The Ballad of Guiteau,” a frantic and truly funny number that this failed preacher and writer sings while mounting the gallows, is a high point of the show. Samuel Byck, perhaps the least-remembered of the assassins, had the most ambitious scheme: hijack a plane, crash it into the White House, and kill Richard Nixon. His half-crazy rants were brilliantly recounted by Christopher Bloch.
Two inventive characters weave the assassins together across space and time. The Proprietor (Kurt Boehm) inveigles each killer to select a gun and leads “Everybody’s Got the Right,” a song that reminds us of the perils of personal freedom. The Balladeer (Sam Ludwig, who also reappears as Oswald) provides us with the crucial backstories of Booth, Czolgosz and Guiteau.
Scenic designer James Kronzer’s rough-surfaced series of doors and panels accommodate swift entrances of the characters and occasional piece of furniture, including “Old Sparky,” Zangara’s electric chair. The famous balcony at Ford’s Theater, draped with faded bunting, reminds us throughout the production of Booth’s primacy among the gallery of misfits. Chris Lee’s dramatic lighting is perfectly pitched to moving this revue-like show from its zany heights to its darkly dramatic lows. Conductor Jon Kalbfleisch and seven musicians play with restraint so that Sondheim’s insightful lyrics are never lost.
Nearly all of the memorable songs in Sondheim’s play explore the psychology of the murderers. Only one, “Something Broke,” probes the reactions of the American public. It feels a bit pasted on – as indeed it was – two years after the musical’s premiere. But in another sense, this plaintive ballad is an essential part of the equation. As we know from bitter recent experiences, every act of gun violence ricochets through countless layers of society, tearing another hole in our national fabric. The actions of these miscreants, regardless of our efforts to understand them, force us to consider the dark underbelly of our culture and the damage wrought by those for whom violence is the only way to seek fulfillment.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission