Fame is an equal opportunity employer. It bestows its laurels on heroes and villains alike, judging neither the intentions of its seeker nor the consequences of their actions. The sole determination of who becomes famous is simply a matter of numbers: the more people that know your name, the more famous you have become. And what better way to get your name known quickly and by large numbers of people than to kill a president.
The Encore Musical Theatre is presenting “Assassins”, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about those infamous Americans who set out to do just that. It’s a rogues’ gallery of villains, and they’re all here, from the successful: John Wilkes Booth (David Moan), Charles Guiteau , assassin of James Garfield (Daniel A. Helmer), Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley (Dan Johnson), and Lee Harvey Oswald (Matthew Brennan, who also turns in a triumphant directorial effort), to those whose attempts on a president’s life came up short: Giuseppe Zangara (Ari Axelrod), attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt; Samuel Byck (Keith Allan Kalinowski), attempt on Richard Nixon; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Carly Snyder) and Sara Jane Moore (Sarah Briggs), attempt on Gerald Ford; and John Hinckley (James Fischer) attempt on Ronald Reagan. Ensemble cast members include Leah Fox, Dan Morrison, Kyle Sell, Allie Reynolds, and Alejandro Cantu.
If a musical dealing with such gruesome material sounds over-the-top and more than a little disturbing, it is. “Assassins” opened Off-Broadway in 1990 and closed after 73 performances. The 2004 revival did hardly any better, winning several Tony Awards but notching a meager 101 performances. The public, it seems, has little interest in turning villains into quasi heroes. Which is too bad, because “Assassins”, and Encore’s splendid production, has a lot to offer.
The show opens to a carnival-like atmosphere. A man identified as The Proprietor (Jim Walke) is selling chances for a game with a most unusual prize: the price of a ticket gets you a gun, the motivation to go out and kill a president, and the fame that comes with having done so. And so the would-be assassins gather round to buy their tickets, some with axes to grind, others whose lives have been devoid of recognition, even two women, one of whom seemed more than willing to do the bidding of the man she had attached herself to.
Sondheim’s musical style, with its unconventional melodies and lyrical interpretations of dialogue, seem especially at home in “Assassins”. Songs like “Everybody’s Got the Right”, “The Gun Song”, and “The Ballad of Booth” do much to advance the storyline. Terry Driskill conducts the orchestra and plays keyboards, with Mike Morrison on percussion, Chris Mike and Chris Tabaczynski on reeds, and Michael Bustos on guitar.
Though drama is at the forefront of this tense and often frightening musical, it has its laughable moments. A scene between President Gerald Ford’s attempted assassins Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore practicing their aim at the Colonel’s image on a bucket of his Kentucky Fried Chicken is a well-played piece of dark comedy.
One of the messages of “Assassins” is that we’re all entitled to the contentment that comes with following our muse. And if that muse tells us put a bullet into a president, then by all means do it. And so much the better because it makes for membership in the oh so elite company of those who had similar muses.
The set (design by Sarah Tanner) looks much like the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository looked back in November of 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald knelt before an open widow and pumped multiple bullets into John Kennedy. Not only did those bullets put a horrific end to Camelot, they became the beginning salvos of an internal unrest that continues in this country to today.
Don’t let the subject matter of “Assassins” keep you from seeing this remarkable show. Sondheim’s score coupled with Weidman’s book is an intelligent and entertaining look at some of the darkest moments in American history. It gathers under one roof those who would take down a president and provides food for thought as to what their characters and motivations might have been. Encore Musical’s production is well-played and superbly done. It deserves to be seen.
“Assassins” runs through July 3rd. Tickets are available by calling the theatre’s box office at 1.734.268.6200 or visiting their website at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets. The Encore Musical Theatre is located at 3126 Broad Street in the historic village of Dexter. Take I-96 west and get off at exit 167 (Baker Street).