Stephen Sondheim did not push the envelope far enough in Sweeney Todd, with themes of mass murder and cannibalism. In Assassins he has John Wilkes Booth return from the dead to counsel Lee Harvey Oswald to just pull the trigger. Only this time it’s a comedy with moments of laugh-out-loud buffoonery. Really. And it is also a musical.
In this production at Armory Square’s Redhouse, 201 S. West St., with professional out-of-towners and selected local players, director Stephen Svoboda reminds us that the nearly two-hour, no-intermission show bears a striking resemblance to the late Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line. Nine disparate people, some of them deeply damaged, tell us their stories in song.
Sondheim speaks in two musical voices in Assassins. Most of the time he’s the ironic, urban sophisticate that enraptures his most devoted fans and drives away audiences who would prefer, say, Abba’s Mamma Mia! The complex quartet, “Gun Song,” not incidentally one of the best numbers in the show, would not be out of place in a modernist opera. Zach Orts delivers this music with a three-player ensemble of piano, guitar and flute. The second voice is the folky Balladeer (Jacob Sharf), accompanied by Rob Kronen’s banjo, reminding us that we are also a rural nation.
Although the impetus for Assassins sprang from Sondheim’s mind, he sought out preferred collaborator John Weidman to write the book, but not the lyrics. Put together, their music gives a weighty commentary on American gun culture, the individual vs. the masses, and the projections we have affixed on the presidency. It’s enough for a graduate seminar, making this production timely in the heat of the current presidential election.
To turn all this cogitation into an entertainment, Weidman and Sondheim employ the metaphor of a shooting gallery in a carnival. “Step right up,” the huckstering Proprietor (Alex Levin), cries. “Shoot the president; win a prize.” Kill the democratically elected head of state and your grievance will be publicized. Your name will live on, in at least some instances, to future generations.
Patrician, well-spoken John Wilkes Booth (Chris Baron) comes first, both chronologically and thematically. Ordinary murder, he explains, is for adulterers and shopkeepers. Assassination, on the other hand, is both more public and less personal. Two millennia after the assassination of Julius Caesar everyone can recall the name of his assassin, Brutus, without condemning him. Even though the ensemble mocks that Booth was really driven to avenge the bad reviews he had received as an actor, he champions a cause bigger than himself, the Confederacy, and issues still with us, like states’ rights.
Most of the rest were some kind of loser, even if they came from a privileged family, like the Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley, or professed to support causes they barely understood, like the bumbling, would-be radical, Leon Czolgosz. Vain and self-regarding, John Wilkes Booth has the air of the tragic about him, even though the bouncy “Ballad of Booth” is in the Sondheim folky vein. All the others tend toward pathos when they are not absurd, or in the case of the two women, really laughable. The contrast is what gives Booth stature, making him a model and inspiration for those who came after, as, apparently, he was in life.
Seeking to strike a blow for oppressed workers, who labor for six cents an hour, impoverished Polish immigrant Leon Czolgosz (David Cotter) resembles the European assassins who shot royalty and nobility, or the suicide bombers of our own time. Radicalized by Emma Goldman (Krystal Scott), he merits two musical numbers: the superlative quartet “The Gun Song” with Goldman and two other assassins, and then his own ballad, joined by the Balladeer and the ensemble. He nailed President William McKinley in Buffalo, bringing Vice President Theodore Roosevelt into office, starting the progressive era.
Other would-be shooters were not so astute. Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara (Brian Detlefs), doubled over in pain from a botched gallbladder operation, took a bead on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt but hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead. Conspiracy theories suggested that mob enemy Cermak was indeed the real target, which may be nonsense. In any case, Zangara perceives himself to be a heroic figure in his self-celebrating solo, “How I Saved Roosevelt.”
Other forms of delusion range from the scary through the amusing to the pathetic. Ranting madman Samuel Byck (John Bixler), always dressed in a red Santa suit, is the kind of person you’d avoid standing next to in line, and bears a certain relationship to Travis Bickle in the Martin Scorsese movie Taxi Driver. The only Jewish assassin, he has a fixation on composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, and in one of the show’s sustained in-jokes, riffs on the lyrics from West Side Story, written, of course, by Bernstein’s collaborator, Stephen Sondheim.
Byck’s complaints against Richard Nixon, however, sound like the Internet trolls whose bilious comments follow online news stories. He holds the head of state responsible for all the failures of the nation, just as some voters do. Sean Penn portrayed an even more frightening version of the same character in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004).
Merely fatuous, although far from harmless, is American-born Charles Guiteau (Dan Williams), who was assured that he should be appointed ambassador to France. Director Svoboda and costume designer Lisa Loen dress Guiteau to look like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, reducing his sense of threat. A clumsy shot, his victim, James Garfield, should have survived except for the shoddy medical care even a president received in 1881. In his own “Ballad of Guiteau” he remains untroubled.
The hopes of John Hinckley (Anthony Malchar) to impress Jodie Foster are among the best-known stories to be told and remain a punchline 31 years later. Hinckley’s song, the Top-40ish “Unworthy of Your Love,” sounds like it came from another show. A bum marksman, Hinckley can’t hit the Gipper, who dodges around the shooting to upstage the klutz assassin with his own wisecracks.
In an unsettling move, the chummy Balladeer played by Jacob Sharf morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald in the final installment. Just then we realize all action has been taking place on the set of the Texas Book Depository in Dallas, ingeniously designed and lighted by Tim Brown. Booth’s argument to Oswald is the climax of all the action, and the voice we hear as Emma Goldman leads the ensemble in song for the Oswald sequence.
Interspersed throughout the action are firecrackers of hilarity from two hapless women who tried and failed to shoot Gerald Ford, the only unelected president. Sylph-thin Laura Austin may not have the right girth to play the five-times-married West Virginia housewife Sara Jane Moore, but she has a tight handle on the brainlessness. Flame-tressed Marguerite Mitchell makes Lynette “Squeaky” Frome a true-believing fanatic rather than a lightweight. Together they make a surefire comedy team who could take their act on the road. Sara Jane: “I’m givin’ him the evil eye.” Squeaky: “That’s a picture on a bucket of chicken.”
With the Syracuse University Drama Department’s recent Merrily We Roll Along, in two weekends we’ve had two shows by Stephen Sondheim, supposedly an acquired taste. For those who have passed that threshold, Assassins is a piquant treat, a feast of dark wit and superb performances.
This production runs through Saturday, Oct. 13. See Times Table for information.