I was so impressed by Next Stage's Assassins that in Westword's 2007 Best of Denver issue, it was named Best Production of a Musical. The current revival features most of the same cast members, and Sondheim's score — which takes on such American idioms as ballads, hymns, rock music and musical comedy, in both homage and challenge — remains varied and fascinating. So I've been trying to figure out why this production has lost much of its zing.
Assassins explores the lives and motivations of nine people who either killed or attempted to kill American presidents, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, the pathetic would-be slayer of Ronald Reagan; from anarchist Leon Czolgosz to Charles Manson acolyte Squeaky Fromme. All of this is done in song and dance on a flag-draped carnival set sporting a sign that reads "Shoot the Prez." A barker encourages passersby to take their turns, because "Everybody's got a right to their dreams." There are loud, periodic gunshots, and with every attempted murder a sign flashes "Hit" or "Miss." When Hinckley discharges his weapon, you hear a genial Reagan sound-alike say — as Reagan supposedly did to his surgeons — "I hope you're all Republicans," and then mockingly and mechanically comment several times over: "There you go again." The image of these frighteningly twisted assassins forming a merry chorus line is jolting, even before they pause in their song to point their guns directly at us, the audience. And it's startling to listen to the gentle harmonies of "The Gun Song," in which Czolgosz, Booth and Charles Guiteau, who killed President James A. Garfield, extol the virtues of their weapons, eventually joined by Sara Jane Moore, the dotty housewife who fired at President Gerald Ford.
What does all this say about America? There have been few assassination attempts on leaders of modern democracies by their own citizens over the last fifty years; off-hand, I can think of only Charles de Gaulle and Italy's Aldo Moro, murdered by militant Communists, though there may be more. But America saw Jack Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr. gunned down, as well as George Wallace during his presidential run. When assassinations do occur in other countries, they are clearly political — but the motivations of the characters in Assassins are chaotic and meaningless. Hinckley wanted to impress Jodie Foster. Giuseppe Zangara would have done anything to ease the burning pain of his perpetual stomach ache. Sam Byck — who conceived of the idea of crashing a plane into the White House and killing Richard Nixon — was just plain nuts, and so were Moore, Fromme (who also attempted a potshot at Ford) and Guiteau. The latter, a paranoid fantasist, claimed to be avenging Garfield's refusal to make him ambassador to Paris.
Presented by Next Stage through August 18, Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 720-209-4105. www.nextstagedenver.com
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Sondheim and writer John Weidman downplay the political concerns of those assassins who did hold them. Czolgosz, killer of James McKinley, was an anarchist, but in Assassins his act has more to do with his love for Emma Goldman than his interest in her theories. John Wilkes Booth may have killed Lincoln to avenge the fallen South, but here he's more concerned with the bad reviews he received as an actor and his desire for enduring fame. The musical postulates that the driving force that unites these people is their sense of helplessness and exclusion. In this, they represent the dark side of the American dream.
Obviously, Assassins is less shocking and unsettling to view a second time around. But it also seems to me that the focus has shifted, and at this point director Gene Kato is going almost purely for laughs. The humor in the script is uneasy, stemming from the juxtaposition of incongruous elements; audience laughter on the night I attended, however, felt cheerful and easy. In one startling scene, Guiteau is led to the gallows, cakewalking and singing the words of a prayer that the real-life Guiteau actually wrote: "I Am Going to the Lordy." Performed last year by Todd Coulter, who alternated between manic denial and sheer terror, it was bone-chilling. Paul Page, who has the role this time, is an excellent actor, but his Guiteau seems as jovial as ever on the deathwalk. And Kato has cut the moment when Guiteau ascends the gallows and the noose is slipped over his head. Perhaps because the overall savagery of Assassins is so tamed, "Something Just Broke," the mournful song about Kennedy's death, now sounds more sentimental than touching.
Gregg Adams and Brian Hutchinson repeat their standout performances as Czolgosz and Booth, respectively. Tyler Collins is effective as Hinckley, and Ken Paul provides affable support in a number of roles. Jeremy Sartore, playing the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, reveals a striking singing voice. But Jessica Clare creates an absurdly hammy Sara Jane Moore, and Jenny Hecht, as Fromme, abandons the restraint she showed in the previous production and hams right along.
In the final few scenes, however, the actors gain their footing, everything comes together, and I can see the originality, fierceness and fury that impressed me so much on first viewing Assassins.