In the history of slogans, the U.S. Army’s misbegotten “Army of One” tagline never really caught on, at least with the military. But it was quickly co-opted by domestic terrorists after Timothy McVeigh set off his truck bomb in Oklahoma City. Echoing that thought, presidential assassins seek to be an “Electoral Majority of One” when they take down our country’s leaders.
In the mordant musical Assassins, now at the Lakeland Civic Theater, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) attempt to dissect the mentality and cultural significance of nine very different historical lunatics. Even though the material itself is flawed in multiple ways, this production directed by Martin Friedman makes it all work remarkably well, with several spot-on performances.
Friedman and scenic designer Trad A Burns decide to eschew the original carnival shooting gallery setting, opting instead for a wide concrete stairway that evokes the U.S. Capitol building. This monolith of gray seem initially oppressive and limiting, but as it turns out it allows Friedman to move his players vertically as well as horizontally, giving the production a unique visual style.
The play itself is a jumble of scenes, some spoken and some sung, that jump back and forth in time as we encounter famous killers (John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald) and wannabes (John Hinckley, Sara Jane Moore, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Guiseppe Zangara, and Samuel Byck). Less well known assassins include Charles Guiteau (he killed James A. Garfield) and Leon Czolgosz (he offed William McKinley).
However, without any serviceable dramatic through line, the script continually has to re-start itself with each scene, and that becomes tedious. But thanks to some deft acting work, the whole 90-minute one-act hangs together surprisingly well.
After an ironically up-tempo opening song “Everybody Has a Right (to Be Happy),” the lineup starts appropriately enough with assassin #1, John Wilkes Booth. Scott Esposito brings an appropriate veneer of arrogance to his character, and he sings well in “The Ballad of Booth.”
After that, the leapfrogging begins and it’s hard to find any rhyme or reason why the scenes are arranged as they are. Still, Neely Gevaart and Amiee Collier (would-be Gerald Ford assassins)combine to fashion an amusing pas de deux in their scene, with Collier finding just the right mix of middle class blandness and bone-deep psychosis. As Guiteau, Kevin Joseph Kelly is nicely controlled as he manages to trigger laughs without losing his character’s troubled essence.
Kevin Becker is properly spooky as the loner Hinckley while Trey Gilpin as Zangara and Brian Altman as Czolgosz have a couple incisive moments. But the most affecting performance is turned in by Brint Learned as Byck (this wacko dreamed of flying a 747 into Nixon’s White House). Dressed in a homeless man’s Santa suit, Learned crafts a clearly deranged loser who is still close enough to reality to send a chill up anyone’s spine.
JFK’s assassination concludes the play, as Oswald (a fairly non-descript Curt Arnold) is talked into shooting the Prez by the entire rogues’ gallery. This is the one scene where Friedman doesn’t use the stairs to the script’s advantage, as Oswald moves all over the staircase instead of inexorably towards his deadly perch. Thus, the tension that should build towards this final act of insanity is dissipated.
The authors try to tie this all together with a balladeer, a thankless role handled by Aaron Elersich with as much élan as he can summon. Also an afterthought, in this staging, is the Proprietor (James J. Jarrell). Since there is no shooting gallery to be the proprietor of, he is relegated to peddling his guns out of a suitcase.
As uneven as the script is, Friedman and his actors create a substantial evening of theater. One that rings with particular poignance given the recent tragedy in Tucson, Arizona.
Through February 20, produced by the Lakeland Community College Arts and Humanities Division, at the Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland, 440-525-7526