Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) immortalized successful and unsuccessful presidential killers in their musical tribute. Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr. , Sondheim and Weidman cleverly focus on the individual historical incidents within this brotherhood of assassins. Each executioner gets a song or monologue to tell their story. The circumstances may be different but the heart-wrenching commonality is each believes killing the President of the United States will make it better.
Director Rachel Edwards Harvith stages this production in a two level abandoned carnival. Scenic Designer Zachary Gipson builds a versatile wooden boardwalk-like midway. In one scene, a ladder and blocks are positioned into a staircase to create a dramatic dead-man-walking moment. The unsettling Greg Foster (Garfield’s assassin) walks the rickety catwalk to the gallows. To the right, the band is semi-visible behind a shanty fortress. And to the far far right, a shooting gallery features cartoon heads of the presidents. Each attempted assassination is illustrated with the lights and whistles of an arcade game.
Harvith masterfully balances the comedy with the drama in harmony. Absurdities are teased out for comic relief. Neala Barron (Sara Jane Moore) buffoons housewife turned murderer. Barron hilariously reflects the ordinariness of these historical figures. She brings her dog and her kid to her failed assassination attempt of President Ford. Sometimes, the comedy and drama are coupled together like in the song “Unworthy of your love.” Allison Hendrix and Michael Potsic sing an emotionally charged duet. They are not singing to each other but to their obsessions, Charles Manson and Jodi Foster. Hendrix, in particular, is mesmerizing. Her anguish is palpable as she compulsively rifles through newspaper clippings. The humor and intensity collide in dark comedy perfection.
In a noteworthy performance, Jason Richards (Samuel Byck) has intermittent rants. Clad in a Santa coat, Richards is tape recording a letter first to Leonard Bernstein and next to President Nixon. Richards starts his monologues with pleasantries then unleashes a whole lot of crazy. During his Bernstein address, he belts out a chorus of “Tonight. In his Nixon plea, he impressively mimics the President. Richards’ passionate declarations of lunacy are memorable.
The entire ensemble is terrific. They really do kill it! They bring dimensionality to the notorious winners and forgotten losers in the POTUS shootings. “Everybody has the right” bookends the show. The high-energy tune establishes the treasonous tone for this show. The content is so wrong, it’s right. Only in America, would we take a snarky and historical look at killing off our President and then set it to music. ASSASSINS is a deadly shot of American ingenuity.
Running Time: One hour and forty minutes with no intermission
At Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith
Music direction by Kory Danielson
Choreography by Mike Ford
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm
No performance July 4th
Additional performances July 9th and 16th at 8pm
Thru July 20th
Buy Tickets at www.theaterwit.org