Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Musical anatomy of American Assassins

When we think of Stephen Sondheim we're more likely to think "Bring in the Clowns," not "Bring in the Assassins." But in his bittersweet 1990 musical "Assassins" he strips the mask off the American dream by tracing its perversions. In his opening and closing number, "Everybody's Got the Right," he captures a serious misconception: that you not only have the right to dream but also "the right to expect that you'll have an effect."

In doing so Sondheim and John Weidman, who provided the book, echo, unconsciously or not, Alexis de Tocqueville's wry observation about American democracy: that every boy learns that he has a chance to be president of the United States, with the consequence that most of them will be disappointed at their failure.

The setting is a surreal shooting gallery where passersby are invited by the proprietor (Martin Lehman) to shoot a president. In the current production by Sacramento's Artistic Differences Theatre Company, the gallery is represented by a wide booth with two sets of lights jutting up on either side. One lights up when a shot is fired; the other, when somebody wins. The first win is scored by John Wilkes Booth (Craig Howard) with the murder of Lincoln.

Like most of the assassins who follow him, he foresees a future where he'll be admired as a hero and Lincoln will be recognized as a tyrant. But his ghost, who continues through the play as chorus, learns better. In the end he champions the idea that assassination is the path to immortality for a nobody in life.

Also milling around on stage are a collection of the major presidential assassins, both successful and unsuccessful. In subsequent scenes we become acquainted with nine presidential or would-be presidential assassins. Among the more famous today are John Hinckley (Joshua Brown), who aimed at Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, although she didn't even know Hinckley; Samuel Byck (Michael McElroy), who aimed for Nixon; Lynette "Squaky" Fromme (Tygar Lynn Hicks) and Sara Jane Moore (Martha Omiyo Kight), both of whom gunned for Gerald Ford; and of course Lee Harvey Oswald (Thomas Smith, also playing Balladeer).

Under tight direction by Keith Riedell, a thoroughly professional cast moves crisply through 18 scenes, presenting an array of historical figures, many of them scarcely familiar to a modern audience. How many of us remember much about presidents like McKinley and Garfield--or for that matter assassins like Leon Czolgosz (Joshua James), who did in McKinley, and Charles Guiteau, who offed Garfield? What's more, the action doesn't follow chronological order, with characters rubbing elbows with others yet to be born.

Many scenes are surprisingly funny for a subject so grim. In Scene Six Fromme and Moore meet on a park bench, share a joint, extol the virtues of mass-murderer Charles Manson and wind up shooting a bucket of Colonel Sanders Fried chicken. And there's a particularly touching moment in Scene Five, where Colgosz persues the idolized anarchist Emma Goldman (Joelle Wirth) to declare his love. Tenderly she reminds him that she has no time for romance and gives him a sweet kiss. She refuses to let him carry her bag, but relents as he follows her joyfully off the stage.

The 16 actors/singers/dancers perform with authority, though some have trouble projecting lines and story-telling lyrics, even with microphones, in the acoustically challenged Eagle Theatre in Old Sacramento. They're strongly accompanied, though, by a five-piece orchestra conducted by Graham Sobelman, who is also on keyboard.

Incidentally, the stage is not raised high above the audience and the floor is level. So short people are well advised to arrive early and sit up front. You also may want to think about not bringing children. Although the violence is discussed more than shown, some of the language is raw. Still, a very young Devon Hayakawa, playing Billie and in the ensemble, seems to be emerging unscathed.

“Assassins” continues through November 9 at 925 Front Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $18 general, $15 for students and seniors (65+). Call 916-708-3449 or click the title to this post.

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