With “Assassins” Spinning Tree Theatre delivers a first-class production of what may be Stephen Sondheim’s most problematic musical.
Less a plotted story than a sort of murderous minstrel show, “Assassins” -- directed with huge dollops of creativity by Michael Grayman-Parkhurst -- dives head first into the delusions and madness that drove individuals (some infamous, some mere footnotes to history) to kill or attempt to kill the President of the United States.
The evening begins with an injured John Wilkes Booth (Jerry Jay Cranford) surrounded by federal troops in a barn and delivering a musical soliloquy justifying his shooting of Abraham Lincoln. He bases his actions on high patriotic principles -- which don’t seem quite so high when Booth lets loose a rant against “the high and mighty n**** lover.”
It ends with Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Eugene Parman) in the Texas Book Depository, contemplating suicide until Booth’s ghost shows up to egg him into shooting John F. Kennedy.
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In between we meet successful assassins like Leon Czolgosz (Jordan Fox), an anarchist driven by his desperate love for famous radical Emma Goldman (Devan Barnes) to murder President William McKinley. There’s the flat-out crazy Charles Guiteau (Robert J. Hingula), who gunned down James Garfield because he thought he’d been denied an ambassadorship to France.
But there are virtual unknowns here who couldn’t pull off an assassination. Giuseppe Zangara (Steven Eubank) tried to kill FDR; he sings his final song strapped into an electric chair. And most of us have never heard of Samuel Byck (Andy Penn), a beer-swigging wacko who died trying to hijack a plane that he planned to fly into Richard Nixon’s White House.
No, this is not a warm and fuzzy evening of musical theater. These are all severely damaged individuals, and there’s no emotional handle to grab on to. Sondheim and John Weidman, who wrote the book, are practicing a form of Brechtian alienation. This is a play of cold, hard facts, not feelings.
Well, that’s not entirely true. From time to time “Assassins” delivers fiercely satirical comedy, as in the relationship of hippie-chick and Charles Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Liz Golson in the evening’s most diverting performance) and wacko housewife Sara Jane Moore (Julie Shaw). They’re pure amateur hour...no wonder they failed to kill Gerald Ford.
And you’ve got to love “The Gun Song,” in which the killers praise firearms that can turn a nobody into a powerful individual. (“What a wonder is a gun / what a versatile invention / first of all, when you’ve a gun / everybody pays attention.”) It should be sung at NRA gatherings.
There’s even a weird moment of bittersweet romance in the song “Unworthy of Your Love,” a duet by Fromme, who’s singing to Manson, and dweeby John Hinckley (Tyler Rowe), who plans on killing Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster.
These incidents are presented out of chronological order, and between scenes we sometimes find the assassins inhabiting a purgatorial limbo where they can interact. Michael David Allen drifts in and out as The Balladeer, our musical narrator.
One of the marvels of this production is how effectively the minimalist Just Off Broadway Theatre has been employed by the show’s design staff. Particularly impressive are the projections by Shannon Barondeau, which provide a photographic backdrop for many of the scenes.
“Assassins” is chilling, creepy, and even off-putting. One hundred uninterrupted minutes of crazed murderers is not everybody’s idea of a good time.
But it’s doubtful that local audiences will ever see a better production of “Assassins” than this one.
Spinning Tree Theatre’s production of “Assassins” continues through June 11 at the Just-Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Penn Valley Drive. See spinningtreetheatre.com or call 816-235-6222.