Something to Kill For

In 1991, Stephen Sondheim, the cerebral genius of contemporary American musical theater, took on the mindset of nine people who have tried (or succeeded in) killing the President of the United States. He missed the mark. Unlike a few other Sondheim shows that were poorly received at first but later garnered acclaim, Assassins still shoots blanks. While I'm grateful to Theater LaB for bringing it to Houston for the first time -- as a diehard Sondheim fan I relish the chance to investigate this six-time Tony Award winner's one true flop -- I'm not sure there's reason for anybody else to see it, especially considering Theater LaB's disjointed production.

Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics, and John Weidman, who wrote the book (and collaborated much more successfully with Sondheim on Pacific Overtures), came up with the intriguing idea of bringing together those who embodied a particular perversion of the American dream: John Wilkes Booth, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, John Hinckley, Lee Harvey Oswald and other shooting stars, if you will. But that's about all Sondheim and Weidman do: assemble infamous characters. We don't get caught up in them because, despite a great deal of activity, nothing incisive is done beyond establishing the central conceit.

Assassins is a revue, a format Sondheim dabbled in to wry effect in Company. A revue puts a premium on mood, circumstance and psychology. But rather than fathom speculative depths, the creative team skims familiar surfaces: textbook grudges and one-dimensional derangements, sticking to misguided principles and longing for fame. The case histories are little bits of "before," "during" and "after," thus making intimacy hard to come by. Taken separately, the chronicles are as telling as summary paragraphs. No Sweeney Todds here.

Taken as a whole, the stories fail to add up to a thesis about the American mythos, at least not a particularly original one. The assassins interact with each other to no real effect; the chorus they function as has nothing Greek about it. There's no tension among them, or camaraderie. Only too late into things, in a disproportionately long scene in which the assassins convene with a hesitant Oswald to convince him that through his act they will be reborn as "a force of history," is any raison d'etre advanced. But it's unaccounted for. About all these assassins have in common is the obvious.

Since the show is as much spoken as sung, the fault lies equally with both creators. Weidman often opts for empty lines on the order of, "I have given up my life for one act. Do you understand?" His dialogue doesn't as much reveal as insist. He's better at lighter moments, for instance, when Fromme -- the Charles Manson disciple who tried to kill Gerald Ford so that she could be arrested and put on trial, thus allowing Manson to come forth as a witness and address the world -- bumps into Sara Jane Moore, the FBI informant-cum-counterculture wannabe who also tried to assassinate Ford to re-establish her radical credentials. As Weidman imagines it, Fromme is as fervid as Moore is daffy. But even his humor is too easy: Ford stumbles onto the scene helpfully picking up stray bullets and reminding the ladies, "You ought to be more careful with these."

Being careful is what has earned Sondheim a Pulitzer Prize (for Sunday in the Park with George). Though Assassins' songs play to his strengths -- discordant harmonies, multivoiced motifs, disparate styles, clipped lyrics -- many, such as "Everybody Has the Right," are unstriking recountings and rationales for actions taken. The wit to "Gun Song" is limited to "What a wonderful invention / When you have a gun / Everybody pays attention." Sondheim's brilliance is shown only twice: in "Opening," the pizzazzy introduction in which it's said of Booth, "Hey, guys, look who's here / It's our pioneer," and "How I Saved Roosevelt," in which patriotic riffs are combined with the immigrant English of assassin Guiseppe Zangara. More symptomatic of the show's problems is "Unworthy of Your Love," a '70s ballad that Hinckley sings to "Jodie" (Foster) and Fromme sings to "Charlie" (Manson). Hinckley's part, in which he reveals, "You are wind and water and sky," feels trite, while Fromme's, in which she pleads, "Take my blood and body for your love," is disturbingly tongue-in-cheek.

Ed Muth, the director of the Theater LaB production, includes "Something Just Broke," a touchingly somber rumination on the impact Oswald's assassination of Kennedy had on ordinary American citizens. The song was written for the 1992 London premiere, and though it's Sondheim's most distinctive, it misshapes the musical; it upsets the show's delicate balance by making Assassins seem top-heavy with Oswald.

The biggest mistake director Muth, along with musical directors Jay Ferranti and Patricia Rabaza, makes might very well be staging Assassins in the first place: many of the performers can't really sing. And the ones I suspect can are noticeably flat or provide needless embellishments. Individually, the two who consistently pass muster are Muth himself, who plays Charles Guiteau as a determined fop with wild eyes, and Robert Ian Kislin, who tinges Zangara with elemental pettiness, and who sings with an al dente accent to boot. Not unexpectedly, the cast sings best (to a sole piano synthesizer) in the ensemble numbers, when collective harmonizing smoothes out individual wrinkles. It's telling that they're most effective during "Another National Anthem," Sondheim's showstopper that unfortunately has nothing in it to stop the show.

Almost uniformly, the performers are better at acting. For much of the intermissionless revue, they stand in position against scenic designer Karen Hoffman's nifty star-spangled wall of jigsaw puzzle cutouts of the Presidents they're inextricably bound to, and they hold forth compellingly in character. Standouts include Mark Merchant's handsome devil of a Booth. With furrows and snears, Mark Roberts works up Samuel Byck into a tricky dick of a lather. But the best scenes are between Jentry Brown's fanatical Fromme and Jennifer Doctorovich's flighty Moore.

Yet the momentum continually comes to a screeching halt as the scenes move from dialogue to song and back. Also quite distracting is that, for no discernible reason, Muth has various characters sit in the audience from time to time.

The most realized moment in Assassins is when Fromme pulls out a picture of Manson, his face shining dementedly. "They'll hate you with a passion," Oswald is promised at one point. Yes and no.

Assassins plays through April 9 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.


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