Assassin Nation

That Stephen Sondheim has picked some perverse subjects for his musicals shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone, given that one of his most beloved classics concerns a certain serial-killing barber who provides the secret ingredient for his neighbor’s meat pie shop. But a musical about the various people who have killed or attempted to kill the President of the United States from John Wilkes Booth down to John Hinckley Jr.? Now that’s really pushing the boundaries of good taste.

Your friendly neighborhood Assassins. Photo by Maggie Whitaker.

But with a clever book by John Weidman, Assassins is a thoroughly enjoyable short musical with some real moments of brilliance. Sondheim’s songs are marvelous, toying with various American musical styles appropriate to whichever era he’s portraying at the moment. “The Ballad of Guiteau” incorporates vaudeville, a cakewalk and old-timey spirituals; the sobering “Gun Song” culminates in a barbershop quartet; gawkers attest to “How I Saved Roosevelt” in the style of a Sousa march; and Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme sing a ’70s-style love duet that might be sappy if it weren’t so bone-chilling—singing not to each other but to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively.

The musical posits presidential assassination as the flipside of the American dream. If everyone has the right to the pursuit of happiness, if this is a country where anyone can be a success, ten if you don’t succeed, if you’re not happy, that promise has been broken and someone has to pay. Who better than the President of the United States?

San Francisco’s Ray of Light Theatre gives this curious concoction a small-scale but potent production directed by Jason Hoover. Although some of the vocal performances are stronger than others, the musical numbers are quite effective, played by an eight-piece orchestra led by pianist David Möscher dimly visible at the rear of the set. Maya Linke’s scenery evokes a carnival sideshow that’s been left rotting for at least a century, with foliage growing through the cages. Cutouts of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and FDR appear in a shooting gallery window. Costumer Margaret Whitaker gives each character period-appropriate outfits, with the contemporary Balladeer’s bright orange jacket and jeans in striking contrast to John Wilkes Booth’s much more formal 1800s attire.

The proprietor (waxed-mustachioed Steven Hess) acts as a sinister carny barker. “Hey pal,” he sings in a deep voice, “c’mon and kill a president.” And they do come; one by one he peddles guns to passersby from his tattered trenchcoat, all of the buyers being attempted or successful presidential assassins from 1865 to 1981. Derrick Silva’s Booth holds court smoothly as the jovial founding father of his murderous alternate American dream.

With a gently sardonic smile and a pleasant voice that cracks on the high notes, Michael Scott Wells’s Balladeer serves as Booth’s prosecutor and advocate at the same time in “The Ballad of Booth,” conveying the assassin’s impassioned testament as to his reasons but always coming back to taunting that the frustrated stage actor gunned down the president “because of bad reviews.” Lisa-Marie Newton is humorous as the very disorganized Sara Jane Moore, who just can’t seem to get her life together, and Eliza Leoni is amusingly wild-eyed as Manson adherent Fromme, as the two decide to kill Gerald Ford almost on a whim (with Deucalion Martin tagging along as Moore’s adorable son Billy).

The variety of reasons the assassins have for killing the president is one of the great fascinations of the piece. Joel Roster’s grim, anguished factory worker Leon Czolgosz just wants to strike a blow on the behalf of the downtrodden proletariat, and assassinates McKinley as the symbolic head of an oppressive system. Also he’s smitten with Anna Smith’s anarchist firebrand Emma Goldman, and imagines this might be the sort of dramatic stand she’d want him to take. Wanting to impress someone is a pretty popular motivation: see also Fromme and Charles Woodson-Parker’s creepily withdrawn Reagan-shooter Hinckley, who deliver a goosebump-inducing rendition of their duet “Unworthy of Your Love.” (The use of a disco ball at the end of the song is the only really misguided part of Hoover’s otherwise solid staging—the right era but entirely wrong mood.)

James Garfield’s slayer Charles Guiteau is a real piece of work, and easily the most memorable character in the show. While the others feel hopeless and forgotten, Guiteau is an indomitable optimist who believes he can do anything he sets his mind to. He makes himself an author and a preacher, and when he decides to be ambassador to France and Garfield turns him down, he simply removes the obstacle. Gregory Sottolano plays him as obviously crazy, which isn’t strictly necessary but undoubtedly effective. His wide staring eyes are profoundly unnerving with his cheerful grin, and his big musical number with Wells’s Balladeer is a knockout.

Alex Rodriguez’s scowling, thick-accented Guiseppe Zangara gets the short end of the stick as motivation goes, trying to shoot Franklin Delano Roosevelt because he has a stomachache. Danny Cozart’s schlubby Samuel Byck, a guy with a dirty Santa suit and a case of beers, should be the biggest joke of all, sitting around delivering rants into a tape recorder addressed to Leonard Bernstein and President Nixon. He plans to kill the latter by crashing a 747 into the White House, which doesn’t sound nearly as ludicrous now as it did when Assassins was written.

The treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald departs most dramatically from the historical record, not because of the usual conspiracy theories but because in this story his motivations are the least important. The vital thing is that he acts as a sort of redeemer for the rest of the assassins, past and future, raising them from a pathetic national joke to a force of history. Not mentioning the actor here is intentional, as it’s a bit of a spoiler, but suffice it to say he doesn’t act alone.

It’s an odd show to begin with, to be sure. The structure is more of a musical revue than a straight narrative, giving the assassins a lot of anachronistic opportunities to interact despite living in different centuries. The presidents themselves don’t appear except as stand-ins or voices filled in by the Proprietor or the Balladeer, with the exception of an amusing slapstick cameo by Gerald Ford (Tom Orr). Exactly what the Proprietor and Balladeer represent as characters is never really clear, except that one prods the killers on while the other tsks at them for doing what they did. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more charming kick-line of gun-wielding psychos anywhere. And if you’ve been looking for one, you might want to talk to someone about that before you do anything you’ll regret.

Through June 25
Ray of Light Theatre
Eureka Theatre
215 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #56 of 2011, attended June 11.

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  1. 6 / 26 / 2011 7:46 am

    Dear Sam Hurwitt

    My name is Maya. I am the scenic designer for Assassins. I just want to thank you for understanding the story of my set so clearly! You are the first reviewer to have done so. I am constantly complaining that reviewers so often forget to mention the designers and our contribution to the piece, so I really appreciate your review and felt it important to tell you so! All the best…..





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