Assassins Offers Killers in a Carnival Atmosphere

The setup: Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's disturbing and deeply inky cult musical (1990), whose main characters happen to be either presidential assassins or attempted assassins, is brought to chilling life by Music Box Musicals, a newly formed venture between our favorite cabaret quintet The Music Box Theater and MJR Theatrics. MJR is none other than Michael J. Ross, a veteran star of the now-defunct Masquerade Theatre. Ross co-directs with Kristina Sullivan, the newest member of MBT and another former star of Masquerade. This union between Musicals and Theatrics, all grounded by glorious past Masquerade history, is heaven-sent for all Broadway babes. If Assassins is proof of what is to come from this exciting association, bring it on!

The execution:

Technically, this is a play larded with Sondheim music, not your typical Sondheim musical where his distinctive tunes carry the show. The book by John Weidman is definitely on the front burner, with chunks of dialogue minimally punctuated with Sondheim.

In pastiche mode, Sondheim conjures a carnival atmosphere with snippets of such all-American musical styles as minstrel cakewalk, twangy bluegrass, barbershop quartet and a brassy Ziegfeld-like anthem ("Everybody's Got the Right") that could be accompanied by leggy showgirls trailing marabou. Every battered psyche gets a musical portrait. By any stretch, this is not your standard musical.

The show is a difficult work to cozy up to, a Coney Island sideshow of freaks and losers whose only claim to history's infamy is their success or failure in killing our commanders-in-chief. The authors use our inspirational American dream as nightmarish excuse as these mentally unhinged characters collide and interact through the ages: stage star John Wilkes Booth, plainly insane Charles Guiteau, downtrodden Leon Czolgosz, pathetically ordinary Lee Harvey Oswald, deranged hippie Squeaky Fromme, crazy housewife Sara Jane Moore, shlub Sam Byck, sickly immigrant Giuseppe Zangara, sexual virgin John Hinckley.

They point guns at our heads and sing out their neuroses. Neither condemnatory nor sympathetic, the caustic show asks us to understand their pain, but there's not enough depth in this showbiz kaleidoscope to warrant much empathy. It's unsettling yet also slightly facile. It's like the ultimate Kander & Ebb show, with irony writ large, but without the sex.

What pulls this disparate show together with unorthodox power and theatrical pizzazz are the stellar performances. It's an ensemble dream cast. Shining like super novas, they add provocative highlights and shadows to Weidman's sketched-in people. In sharkskin suit with slick shaved head, Adam Delka makes a smarmy Proprietor, the carnival barker whose game, Shoot the Prez! Win a Prize!, spins in the background and lures his benighted customers.

Luke Wrobel brings fierce pride and his effulgent bass/baritone to Czolgosz, the killer of William McKinley. New to us and a welcome addition, Eric Ferguson is all sad, twitchy obsession as Hinckley, who shot Reagan to impress his fantasy love Jodie Foster.

How wonderful it is to see Braden Hunt on stage again after many seasons absent. As loopy Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield, he performs the spooky, cakewalky "Ballad of Guiteau" with showstopping intensity. Eric Edward Schell unearths the pathos inside uncomprehending Zangara, who failed to kill Franklin Roosevelt and was electrocuted for it.

John Gremillion, another stellar Masquerade veteran, delivers two electrifying monologues as sadsack Byck, who only wants somebody to care a little about him, as he makes plans to fly an airplane into the White House to kill Nixon. His comedy shtick turns into a howl of rage.

Topped with greasy red hair and stoned out of her mind, Cay Taylor overlays Squeaky Fromme, slave/lover of Charles Manson and failed shooter of Gerald Ford, with a demonic creepiness of a little girl very lost and, sadly, never to be found.

Amidst the gloom, Rebekah Dahl supplies comic sunburst as thoroughly in-over-her-head Sara Jane Moore, who teams up with Fromme in a pathetic attempt to get Ford. She can never find her gun in her purse, pulling out a shoe instead. When she does wave the gun about, the bullets spill out. During target practice, she shoots her dog and threatens her son (the appealing tyke Duncan Lambert). She's an everyman loser.

Brad Scarborough delivers a stand-out John Wilkes Booth, the show's Ur-assassin and mythic figure of awe for the others. He slithers through the show, hissing encouragement as he insinuates himself into their minds. Impeccably shaded, his "Ballad of Booth" could make you weep were it not for the fact that it's the killer of Lincoln singing so sweetly about his withered soul.

Michael J. Ross, as the Balladeer, the audience's surrogate, weaves through the musical, too, keeping us a safe distance from the dangerous, trigger-happy nutcases. He twangs his folk "Ballads" with quicksilver finesse, a knowing troubadour. In the show's coup de theatre, he's set upon by the killers, stripped of his shirt and morphs chillingly into Oswald at the Book Depository.

The supporting cast, who portray subsidiary figures such as political firebrand Emma Goldman or anonymous observers to the killings, are etched by Stephanie Bradow-Hunt, Marco Camacho, John Dunn, Kristina Sullivan, Elizabeth Tinder. Their voices blend in heartbreaking harmony in "Something Just Broke," an ode to how much we lose when these assassins strike.

In the intimate space of the Music Box, the musical's impact broadens by this very closeness. Directors Ross and Sullivan break through the fourth wall, moving the actors through the audience and down the aisles, bringing the psychopaths up close and personal. Paper globes in red, white and blue hang throughout the cafe space; bunting flanks the stage; projections (by Marco Camacho) pinpoint the scenes, and the wheel of presidents is neatly accomplished by rapid time lapse. Libby Evans's costumes are era-appropriate and evocative of the characters; and all gun shots (sound effects by Gremillion and Thomas Schanding) are crisp and loud. The orchestra (Michael Ammons, Don Payne, Long Le, Mark McCain) brings out the best that's in Sondheim.

The verdict: The brilliant artists at Music Box bring out his best, too. They give these sad, little lives vivid life. They make the demented characters as relevant as ever, maybe even more so in these dysfunctional times. A theatrical event not to be missed.

Sondheim's black, black musical about premeditated presidential ruin runs through November 11 at The Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. Purchase tickets by phone only, 713-522-7722.

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