As the possibility of achieving the American dream grows fainter for too many, as fresh examples of unfathomable acts of violence feed a voracious 24/7 news cycle, Assassins just may be the musical of the moment.
Yes, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright John Weidman created their thought-provoking, surprisingly entertaining musical in 1990. But as the excellent new production by Miami’s Zoetic Stage abundantly demonstrates, Assassins remains all too resonant in 2014.
Sondheim’s work is more intellectually and musically challenging than most, so props to the still-young Zoetic and artistic director Stuart Meltzer for choosing Assassins as the company’s first musical. Presented in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the show is a riveting, first-rate exploration of the way dreams and beliefs can turn into dangerous disillusionment.
Unfolding in a carnival-style shooting gallery, Assassins imagines a gathering of successful and would-be presidential killers from different eras. After the game’s provocative Proprietor (Shane Tanner) supplies the nine men and women with guns, the Balladeer (Chris Crawford) starts to tell their stories, beginning with the “pioneer” John Wilkes Booth (Nicholas Richberg).
Over the course of two hours, though not in chronological order, the Balladeer explores the stories of Charles Guiteau (Gabriel Zenone), Giuseppe Zangara (Henry Gainza), Leon Czolgosz (Nick Duckart), Sara Jane Moore (Irene Adjan), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lindsey Forgey), Samuel Byck (Chaz Mena) and John Hinckley (Clay Cartland), finally transforming into Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin whose televised act took societal grief to a new level.
Given that some of the real-life killers were murderous misfits or clearly deranged, you might think that Assassins would make for a grim piece of theater. Not so. Sondheim, whose work stylistically embraces the different eras in which the assassins lived, and Weidman, who captures the thematic connections among the characters in substantial scenes, embrace humor and irony as storytelling tools.
Adjan’s accident-prone Moore and Forgey’s delusional Fromme share a kooky scene in which the women confide their daddy issues and discover a mutual link to Charles Manson. Fromme and Cartland’s loner Hinckley sing a melodically lovely, lyrically unsettling duet on Unworthy of Your Love, thinking respectively of Manson (Fromme) and Jodie Foster (Hinckley). Zenone’s appealing Guiteau is an amusingly cheerful man with grandiose thoughts, right up to the moment he ascends to the gallows. Mena’s scary-funny Byck, dressed in a Santa suit and chowing down junk food, is the kind of nut case whose anger at being ignored could make him flip on a dime from eccentricity to murderous rage.
With intricately detailed staging by Meltzer and musical direction by Caryl Fantel, Assassins really does sing. To a man and woman, the cast has the vocal skills and finesse that the material requires. Richberg is a mesmerizing Booth, utterly convincing as a 19th century actor who went out in an inglorious blaze. Duckart, with his deep voice and tormented demeanor, makes Czogolsz emblematic of those who work themselves nearly to death and get exactly nowhere. Ditto Gainza’s ailing Zangara, whose soaring voice is silenced by the electric chair.
The design work on Assassins — Michael McKeever’s shooting gallery set, Ron Burns’ mood-shifting lighting, Alberto Arroyo’s period-evoking costumes, Meltzer’s sound — expertly serves the show. Be advised, if you’re one of those who jumps at the sound of a gunshot, that the production’s theatrical firearms get quite a workout.
There’s a place for theater that simply wants to entertain its audiences, but a piece like Assassins aspires to much, much more. Theatergoers who take the leap with Zoetic and experience a musical that remains all too relevant will go home thinking, talking and enriched.