THEATER REVIEW: Cygnet’s “Assassins”

Stephen Sondheim may be the only composer in the world who would consider the attempted assassination of U.S. presidents a fitting subject for a musical.

But as a panelist in a writing lab, he read Charles Gilbert’s script about the topic, secured the rights and wrote “Assassins.”

It opened off-Broadway in 1990 and in London’s West End in 1992. The “ick” factor and the events of 9/11 conspired to delay the planned 2001 Broadway opening. The show didn’t open on Broadway until 2004.

Now Cygnet Theatre brings it to San Diego, in a splendid production directed by Artistic Director Sean Murray that brilliantly balances black comedy with serious reflections on the “whys” of political assassination.

The shock starts right up front, the show set in an arcade shooting gallery designed by SDSU design student Ryan Grossheim. A large poster of those against whose lives attempts were made is flanked by two others shilling a game called “Shoot the President.”

The show covers attempts against Presidents from Lincoln to Reagan, the score reflecting the music of each era. You’ll hear vaudeville sounds, echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan, soft shoe, barbershop, even Monty Python.

Two terrific performances anchor the show. Balladeer Jacob Caltrider shows everybody both how to sing and how to enunciate so that every word is understood. Newcomer Braxton Molinaro plays the most famous American assassin of all, John Wilkes Booth, who stalks the play from the 19th century, influencing succeeding assassins and taking over the stage whenever he’s on it.

The early assassins – Polish immigrant Leon Czolgosz (Jason Maddy), who killed President McKinley; Charles J. Guiteau (Geno Carr), who killed President Garfield; and Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara (Jaycob Hunter), who missed FDR and killed Chicago mayor Cermak – all had financial and/or mental problems, political differences or had suffered discrimination.

The latter group will be more familiar to most of us: Lee Harvey Oswald (Caltrider), who killed President Kennedy; Samuel Byck (Manny Fernandes), who planned to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking a 747 and crashing the plane into the White House; Manson gang member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Melissa Fernandes) and Sara Jane Moore (Melinda Gilb), who made separate attempts to kill Gerald Ford, neither successful; and John W. Hinckley, Jr. (Kürt Norby), who shot Ronald Reagan, but not fatally.

This is a handsome production, with a great set, fine acting all around, excellent sound and lighting design and Sondheim’s trademark, clever lyrics.

Some say “Assassins” glorifies murder. American society in general is certainly fascinated by it, but I don’t think “Assassins” is guilty. Sondheim does something more difficult: he tries to balance the craziness of the act itself (using black comedy) with the deeper psychological reasons for committing the deed. It’s a slippery slope, to be sure, but Sondheim is by and large successful.

Bravo to Murray and his cast for daring to produce this difficult piece, and for doing a fine job.

The details

“Assassins” plays through April 28 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.