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The Strange ‘Assassins’ : Sondheim’s Musical Moves to Bigger Theater Space

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

A musical about the dreams of aspiring and successful killers of Presidents could be in terrible taste, or could be terribly funny, a la “Springtime for Hitler,” from the Mel Brooks film “The Producers.” Or, it could be the ever-strange “Assassins,” the only new Stephen Sondheim musical ever to open at a tiny Off-Broadway theater and then close there, without moving on to Broadway.

On the West Coast, “Assassins” has moved on, from a small space at the Los Angeles Theatre Center to the larger Tom Bradley Theatre, where it reopened on Friday night, as part of a benefit for the Domestic Violence Project. The audience included the family of Nicole Brown Simpson, as well as Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who promised this would be “a special evening for all of us.” One wondered how special a musical about celebrity and grotesque murder might be for the Browns, but we’ll leave the programming taste of the benefit committee for someone else to debate.

As for “Assassins,” fans of Mel Brooks will enjoy a chorus line of whacked-out maniacs, including John Wilkes Booth, Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Lee Harvey Oswald, raising their arms in unison, clenching guns instead of canes. Here we have the embodiment of America’s nightmares executing the kind of smooth synchronisms that Broadway choreographers traditionally use to tell their audiences that life is a pleasing enterprise.

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That image is the show’s cleverest and most pithy accomplishment. It juxtaposes the you-can-do-anything message that is the musical’s stock in trade with people for whom that message is as useless as a diamond-studded hairbrush is to a bald man. John Weidman’s book, however, often belabors the same point: that assassins and would-be assassins of Presidents are people who feel alienated from the mainstream.

Much has been written about advertising’s ability to make us feel worthless even as it ignites our desires. In “Assassins,” Sondheim employs the same argument about the promises of happiness and fulfillment made in American popular music, from the time of John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. One of “Assassin’s” greatest pleasures is hearing Sondheim riff on the lexicon of these songs, even down to their bad grammar and cliches: “Everybody’s got the right to their dreams” goes one lyric.

In one of the funniest scenes, the show acknowledges Sondheim’s own complicity in this myth-building: Samuel Byck, an aspiring Nixon assassin, tapes a rambling message on cassette for one of his heroes, Leonard Bernstein, often pausing to sing a song from “West Side Story.” That 1957 musical, of course, featured the lyrics of the 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim.

A perfectly banal 1970s-style pop ballad, “Unworthy of Your Love,” with hilariously cliched orchestration by Michael Starobin, takes on new meaning when sung by John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme, respectively, to Jodie Foster and Charlie Manson.

Under Peter Ellenstein’s direction, the show gets off to a weak start. The first number is aimlessly choreographed. The opening, a scene where a little boy wanders onstage and picks up a tattered American flag, seems more sanctimonious than necessary.

Just as gratuitous is “Something Just Broke,” an 11th-hour number that Sondheim has added since the 1991 New York production. This is a song in which a bunch of everyday folk come together to say, essentially, Presidents can be good or bad, but it is really not a good idea to kill them.

The show is most fascinating when most subversive. When John Wilkes Booth sings a gorgeous ballad, it is difficult not to sympathize with his sadness on the line, “the country is not what it was.”

As Booth, the assassin whose position is accorded the most dignity by the musical and who goes on to be godfather to the killers who follow, Patrick Cassidy is tortured and mesmerizing.

Also outstanding in the cast is Paul W. Carr as Sam Byck, an unshaved, weepy mess in a dirty Santa suit who grows suddenly hostile while pouring out his failures to “Lenny.” As the Balladeer, Timothy Smith sings very well and seems to be the only cast member entirely in command of the musical comedy vernacular that is the context of the show.

Throughout his career, Sondheim has broadened the American musical into a form that can address the disillusionment of marriage (“Follies”) or the euphoria of bloody revenge (“Sweeney Todd”). In “Assassins,” several production numbers end with the execution of deranged killers. One can say he has now effectively proven the form can contain anything.

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“Assassins,” Los Angeles Theatre Center, Tom Bradley Theatre, 514 South Spring Street, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends April 23. $10-$39. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Christopher Carroll: Proprietor, Others

Sean Smith: Leon Czolgosz

Steve Jackson Wilde: John Hinckley

Alan Safier: Charles J. Guiteau

Gary Imhoff: Giuseppe Zangara

Paul W. Carr: Samuel Byck

Bridget Hoffman: Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme

Jean Kauffman: Sara Jane Moore

Patrick Cassidy: John Wilkes Booth

Timothy Smith: Balladeer

John Allee: Lee Harvey Oswald

Others: Houston Graham, Matthew Bartilson, Darryl D. Winslow, David Randall Holladay, Evelyn Halus, Pamela Tomassetti.

The Assassins Company in association with James A. Doolittle presents the Los Angeles Repertory Company Inc. production. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr. Directed by Peter Ellenstein. Sets and lights by Robert L. Smith. Costumes by Doug Spesert. Musical staging and choreography by Kay Cole. Production stage manager Matthew Walters.


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