Stephen Sondheim creates award-winning musicals out of the most unlikely subjects, but a show about attempted and successful assassinations of U.S. presidents might seem too much of a risk. But Assassins is a gripping think piece as well as an engaging entertainment, especially in PlayMakers Repertory Companys brilliant production.
Set in an imaginary midway shooting gallery, its proprietor offers guns to those who are feeling depressed and angry about their lives and country, promising that shooting a president will make them happy. Various men and women in history who plotted such deeds emerge from the audience, taking the proffered firearms. For the rest of this 95-minute roller-coaster ride, each characters story is told in music and dialogue, often joined by some or all of the others across time, forming a macabre support group.
Sondheims songs mimic each characters era, sometimes poignant and bitter, often satirical and snappy. But John Weidmans script has even greater impact, from gallows humor interchanges between Lynette Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (both targeting Gerald Ford) to the disturbing ramblings of Sam Byck (Richard Nixons would-be executioner). Weidmans most chilling scene is the final one, in which John Wilkes Booth appears to Lee Harvey Oswald, persuading him to take the biggest prize.
Director Mike Donahue confidently balances weighty underpinnings with vaudeville-like surfaces, making full use of Rachel Haucks balconies-and-stairs set and Charlie Morrisons carnival-esque lighting. Mark Hartmans musical direction and Casey Sams choreography keep the material captivating while subtly emphasizing its caustic messages.
The nigh-perfect cast is lead by Danny Binstocks preening, sly John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Blair Cornells funny-scary Sam Byck and Julie Fishells ditzy Sara Jane Moore. Gregory DeCandias Leon Czolgosz (William McKinleys assassin) is movingly intense, Jeffrey Meanzas Charles Guiteau (James Garfields murderer) gloriously deluded, and Brandon Garegnanis John Hinckley (who wounded Ronald Reagan) pitiably deranged. Maren Searle (Squeaky Fromme), Joseph Medeiros (as Giuseppe Zangara, F.D.R.s pursuer), Spencer Moses (the Balladeer who narrates) and Ray Dooley (the Proprietor) round the talented principals.
Profanity and gunfire throughout the show may trouble some audience members, and the sound system doesnt allow all of Sondheims crafty lyrics to be fully heard. But what this 1990 musical still has to say about freedoms and fanaticisms is frighteningly up-to-the-minute.