Musical theater can be sappy, commercial, retro or infantile, but now and then the venerable genre produces a show unlike any that came before.
Case in point: “Assassins,” a 1990 work from composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book-writer John Weidman, now receiving its first professional production in Kansas City via Spinning Tree Theatre. Even by present standards, “Assassins” rates as radical conceptual theater that dazzles with artistry and sheer audacity.
Using an idea attributed to playwright Charles Gilbert Jr., Sondheim and Weidman craft a surrealistic revue that opens at a carnival shooting gallery. Past, present and future intersect in unpredictable ways as figures from the 19th century coexist with characters from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. As this gallery of homicidal freaks gathers, a carnival proprietor beckons them: “No job? Cupboard bare? One room, no one there? Hey, pal, don’t despair — You wanna shoot a president? C’mon and shoot a president.”
The principals include John Wilkes Booth, who shot Abe Lincoln in 1865; Charlie Guiteau, who shot James Garfield in 1881; Leon Czoglosz, William McKinley’s 1901 slayer, and Guiseppe Zangara, who while trying to shoot FDR in 1933 succeeded only in murdering the mayor of Chicago.
Also on hand are Samuel Byck, who plotted to assassinate Richard Nixon in 1974; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of Charles Manson’s cult followers, who tried to shoot Gerald Ford the following year; and Sara Jane Moore, who also tried to kill Ford within a few weeks of the Fromme attempt.
And there’s John Hinkley, Reagan’s would-be assassin of 1981, who in the netherworld of his mind still pines for Jodie Foster.
Making cameos are radical Emma Goldman, whose fiery speeches inadvertently inspired Czolgosz to shoot McKinley, and David Herold, who tried to help Booth make his getaway. Late in the show we finally meet Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s killer, a personality-challenged entity who is manipulated by Booth — or the ghost of Booth — to keep his appointment with destiny.
The assassins and the wannabes on stage are, in most cases, raving narcissists. Booth, an actor, believes he alone can right the wrongs inflicted on the South during the Civil War by murdering Lincoln. And Guiteau is a delusional con artist who sees even his own execution as one last opportunity for a little flimflam. Hinkley believes he did it all for Jodie, and Fromme thinks she is somehow acting on her “special relationship” with Manson.
At the same time, these figures seem to personify what some have called “the banality of evil,” none moreso than Sara Jane Moore, who comes across as a misplaced suburban housewife plotting Ford’s assassination as though she were planning a trip to the supermarket.
The humor in this show is cogent, acerbic and disturbing, brought to life by an exceptional cast. Jerry Jay Cranford holds the stage as Booth, playing him with all the puffed-up gravitas you would expect from a 19th-century ham. Liz Golson stands out as Squeaky Fromme, authentically reflecting some of the drug-addled counter-cultural denial and rationalizing some of us are old enough to remember. Her scenes with Moore, played by the customarily exceptional Julie Shaw, provide some of the comic highlights of the evening.
If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Robert J. Hingula, whose performance as Guiteau is a bravura portrait of a snake-oil salesman who may or not be crazy — and who goes to meet his maker with the enthusiasm of a song-and-dance man. Nice work is registered by the charismatic Jordan Fox as the humorless Czolgosz, classy Devon Barnes as Goldman and intense Steven Eubank as Zangara. Daniel Eugene Parman is effective as Oswald and Andy Penn delivers a smart, creepily convincing performance as Sam Byck.
Holding it all together is the Balladeer, who functions as narrator and editorialist. Michael David Allen, making his Kansas City stage debut, reveals a fine singing voice and unique stage presence.
Director Michael Grayman-Parkhurst does a good job of filling the big Just Off Broadway thrust stage. And music director Gary Green, leading an eight-piece band, captures the strengths of one of Sondheim’s most evocative scores.
This show speaks to moments in history — some of them not so long ago — but it also seems creepily relevant to the here and now. The idea that you can make a statement, legitimize yourself, simply by picking upn a gun has never been so deeply imbedded in the American psyche. Sadly, in a political system trimmed with democratic window-dressing while offering few options to the under-served and dispossessed, the gun as equalizer becomes an irresistible choice in a country where anyone can buy a firearm.
That, this show suggests, has been true from the beginning.
“Assassins” runs through June 11 at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central in Penn Valley Park. Call 816-235-6222 or go to www.spinningtreetheatre.com.