If the smaller than usual crowd at last Friday night’s performance of the Manatee Players’ Assassins was any indication, the theater’s production of this Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical about the murder-minded men and women who have taken aim at the president of the United States won’t break any box office records. And while that’s no surprise—dark subject matter, strong language, etc. don’t tend to draw in every theater fan—it’s also something of a shame. That’s because the show, under the direction of Rick Kerby, is a superior one.
The concept for Assassins is itself a daring one, presenting nine of the killers or would-be killers coming together over their different decades in a carnival midway setting where “Shoot to Win” is the name of the game. So is the typical Sondheim approach of mingling compelling drama with the art of black comedy at the same time we’re absorbing intricate songs and lyrics.
The show's story really begins with the first of the presidential assassins, John Wilkes Booth (Brian Chunn), accompanied by the Balladeer (Maxwell C. Bolton, who later doubles believably as Lee Harvey Oswald) telling both Booth’s version of his mission to kill Lincoln and the one that has come down through us to history. Booth is the prototype, so to speak, and although the later assassins may have different motivations for their actions, from religious mania to anarchist politics to misguided infatuation, surely they, too, all long to be remembered.
“They” include Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara (Alex Beach), whom some may have forgotten tried to kill Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Charles J. Guiteau (Rodd Dyer), who went to the gallows for killing James Garfield; Leon Czolgosz (Cory Woomert), who hoped to protest social injustice by assassinating William McKinley; John Hinckley (Rik Robertson), who aimed at Ronald Reagan; and Samuel Byck (Michael Bajjaly), whose target was Richard Nixon. And, for gender equality, throw in Sara Jane Moore (Michelle Anaya) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Sarah Cassidy), both of whom tried and failed to kill Gerald Ford.
The two women, especially Anaya, provide the lighter moments of Assassins, as in the play’s construct they meet and interact, becoming at times two giggly girls with guns. Some of the funniest moments of the show come when Anaya as Moore keeps accidentally firing a gun she struggles to find in the big bag she carries—Ford, it would seem, was never in much real danger from her.
Equally funny is Bajjaly as Byck, a clearly deranged man in a Santa suit who butchers Bernstein tunes while leaving long, rambling, angry messages for composer Leonard. Funny but scary, too, as Byck is only one of the show’s voices convinced that “The country is not what it was,” as Booth says. Sound familiar in this election season?
Yes, Assassins, which first bowed off-Broadway in 1990, is timely, probably not just now but forever, unfortunately. It’s also ably presented here, with a strong cast, nuanced music direction by William Coleman, and a set design by Ken Mooney that simply but effectively takes us from that midway game to a Civil War barn to a Texas book depository in 1963. And the songs, from the driving "Another National Anthem" to the softer "Unworthy of Your Love" duet between Cassidy and Robertson to the heartfelt "Something Just Broke," which reflects on how ordinary Americans are impacted every time an assassination takes place, will linger in your mind after the curtain.
That is, if you make the decision to try something different from the usual and go. Assassins runs through Nov. 13 at the Manatee Performing Arts Center; for tickets, call 748-5875 or go to manateeperformingartscenter.com.