Nobody wants to be a nobody. When life looks bleak, frustration can turn to hopelessness and desperation that finally leads to action. If a person blames the government for the ills that have befallen him, he just might get the crazy idea to shoot the President of the United States. After all, infamy is still fame. The ACT and 5th Avenue Theatres team up to take on the topic with Stephen Sondheim’s deliciously dark musical revue Assassins. From an initial carnival shooting gallery setting, the show stitches together scenes of our country’s presidential assassins (both the successes and failures) to analyze the psyches that led them to pull the trigger.
While not Sondheim’s best musical, the degree of difficulty in successfully pulling off Assassins makes it one of his greatest feats. There’s a challenging and unsettling blend of humor and truth from the moment things get underway with “Everybody’s Got the Right.” The number finds the Proprietor (Nick DeSantis) of the imagined carnival slyly crooning about the right to happiness, and how that path can be found by shooting a president (but “hey, no violence!”). Sondheim’s playful side pops up throughout the show, most notably while subverting the love duet form for “Unworthy of Your Love.” John Hinckley, Jr. (Frederick Hagreen) sings a cheesy ode to Jodie Foster (his Ronald Reagan assassination muse), and Squeaky Fromme (Laura Griffith) joins in with a more twisted declaration of her devotion to Charlie Manson, eventually leading both parts to merge together. The tune manages to simultaneously be sick and sweet. The storyline injects just enough pathos into the characters to make the audience feel for these wayward souls without having to necessarily sympathize with them.
Each of the eight assassins effectively carves out their own distinct role. Louis Hobson instigates the action with a delightful turn as John Wilkes Booth, the inspirational ringleader for the ragtag assassins. Hobson plays the part with an excessive melodramatic swagger that would feel like overacting were it not for Booth’s actual acting background. The man knows a thing or two about theatrics, and plays things up to their fullest.
In terms of scene stealing, no one can match Kendra Kassebaum’s portrayal of failed Gerald Ford assassin Sara Jane Moore. It’s the juiciest comedic role in the show, and Kassebaum nails the unstable mental confusion and repressed rage of Moore’s crazy cat lady with a murderous edge vibe. Every time she’s the focus of a scene, things instantly become a hoot. While the actors playing Giuseppe Zangara (attempted Franklin D. Roosevelt assassin) and Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley’s assassin) lean to heavily on immigrant accents, it’s not enough to detract from the cast as a whole.
Assassins might not blow anyone away, but there’s enough amusing character work and Sondheim cleverness riddled throughout the production to keep things interesting. The musical’s one act format drags on near the end because of the necessity for every character to get their assassination moment, but that’s an unavoidable hurdle of the script. Not every bullet in the show’s chamber hits its target, but enough find their mark to make the audience feel it. Give it a shot.
Thru May 8, ACT Theatre, $49–$74