ST. PETERSBURG — John Wilkes Booth cuts a fine figure in the fog, strolling onto a Twilight Zone of a set early in Freefall Theatre's Assassins, an offbeat musical by Stephen Sondheim about the underbelly of American society.
Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist factory worker who shot President William McKinley in a receiving line, has nothing in common with Booth except overpowering resentment. Across time and in a circus-like milieu, other killers, and those who tried but failed, step forward to sing ballads of anger. John Hinckley Jr. strums a love song to Jodie Foster. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who each tried to kill President Gerald Ford, compare notes on their very different lives and personalities.
And Samuel Byck, who tried to hijack a plane in the hopes of crashing it into President Richard Nixon's White House, narrates an explosive litany of perceived slights by Leonard Bernstein and crushed dreams while wearing a Santa Claus suit. In a show that echoes Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Sondheim and writer John Weidman, who wrote the book, seem to have built this musical around Willy Loman's cited dictum, "Attention must be paid," in this case to the dispossessed.
Though the composer said the musical, which debuted off-Broadway in 1990, was his most complete work, and it won five Tony Awards in a 2004 revival, Assassins never rose to the stature of many other Sondheim shows. Explanations might include a somewhat scattershot revue structure and the darkness of the material itself. But in today's more violent America, in which lone murderers regularly make national news, this production seems less controversial than thoughtful.
The musical style, a blend of 19th century murder ballads and Sondheim's cacophonous conversations, works its way into the brain over a quick 90 minutes, buttressed by narrator Lee Harvey Oswald and a band led by Michael Raabe. Director Chris Crawford in a recent interview said he asked the cast to avoid judging the nine killers or would-be killers, but to consider from a distance their perspectives.
While that might be humanitarian, it's also practical: These people have guns. That said, as someone who gets a little squeamish at anyone pointing any kind of gun at me and firing, I never felt unsafe. Actors handled their weapons deftly.
With characteristic confidence, Sondheim states his premises explicitly, notably in the song, Another National Anthem, delivered by most of the assassins: "Listen to the tune that keeps on pounding … getting louder every year."
Performances make this production work. Lucas Wells carries the bulk of the storytelling in a fine tenor voice, then delivers Oswald with the kind of reverence one might expect for people who are old enough to remember the Kennedy assassination. Alan Mohney Jr. sings a crisp Charles Guiteau, who radiates positive thinking. Britt Michael Gordon as Booth, Robert Teasdale as Guiteau and all-purpose player and musician Nick Orfanella give praiseworthy performances, as do others too numerous to list. Marissa Toogood and Susan Haldeman offer slices of comic relief as Fromme and Moore while also plundering the senses: How do people this normal go so wrong?
The loose setting, a carnival tableau complete with framed portraits of presidents, as in a shooting gallery, might be hard for some people to sink their teeth into. Others might not go at all, frightened away by the subject matter.
But the ambiguities served up here, and the darkness delivered, are earned. This show and this production give audiences credit for being interested enough to care about characters who, whether we want to admit it or not, shape our world, and the forces that motivate them. That ought to be worth more than a stuffed animal.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.