While the premise of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins
may sound bleak—the stories of nine presidential assassins, four of whom were successful—it is actually fascinating and, surprisingly, funny. “Funny” may not seem plausible given the subjects, but when Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme get high and use Colonel Sanders’s picture on a bucket of KFC as a “graven image” to curse their fathers with “the evil eye”…well, that’s priceless.
D. Scott Robinson directs the actors in their depictions of desperate characters’ personalities and decade-defining markers, including authentic replicas of the original guns (created by David Schlatter), clothing style (Linda Rowand), and music (under the baton of Matthew Konrad Tippel).
The timeline spans Lincoln to Reagan, though not in that order, and the assassins defy time by interacting with each other. The lineup can get confusing, so a quick summary here may help audiences follow along:
Mark Meyer as John Wilkes Booth, 1865: assassin of Abraham Lincoln
David Wood as Charles Guiteau, 1881: assassin of James Garfield
Jake McDuffee as Leon Czolgosz, 1901: assassin of William McKinley
Scott Fleshood as Giuseppe Zangara, 1933: attempted assassin Franklin Roosevelt
Luke McConnell (uncredited) as Lee Harvey Oswald, 1963: assassin of John F. Kennedy
Daniel Draves as Samuel Byck, 1974: attempted assassin of Richard Nixon (by planning to fly a 747 into the White House)
Stacia Hulen as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Cathy Tolzmann as Sara Jane Moore, 1975: attempted assassins of Gerald Ford
Trenton Baker as John Hinckley, 1981: attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan
The show also includes two fictional characters: The Proprietor (a gun salesman, portrayed by Steven R. Linville, who has a chillingly creepy grin) and The Balladeer (McConnell, who has a beautiful voice, as a narrator). In addition, the stage is fleshed out by a handful of bystanders and a few auxiliary characters.
Each assassin actor embodies someone with an excessive personality based on actual accounts, whether flamboyant (such as Fromme, Tolzmann, Draves, and Wood) or deeply angry/pained (such as Wood, McDuffee, and Fleshood). Everyone is up to the challenging task (Zangara even has lines in Italian), which makes these characters so real. While their entire background can’t be conveyed in 90 minutes, the show inspires some homework—a mark of a production that entertains while making you think.