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BWW Reviews: Circuit Playhouse Hits the 'Bull's Eye' with ASSASSINS

While watching Director Dave Landis' "killer" take on Stephen Sondheim's quirky musical ASSASSINS at Circuit Playhouse, I had an interesting thought. Take a minor character like "Agnes Gooch" in MAME, give her a gun, and point her toward a President - for that is what Sondheim has done for his misguided, deadly social outcasts and misfits in this original (if esoteric) musical. Rather than take an oddball character and use him/her as a tangential character, he has chosen to put them (no pun intended) "dead center." Composers of musicals often turn to bestsellers, fairy tales, or nonmusical plays for source material, but occasionally, they find inspiration in the most unlikely places (the most famous example is probably Andrew Lloyd Webber's CATS, but there's also STARLIGHT EXPRESS, with its train set that comes to life). But . . . assassins (or would-be assassins)? What Sondheim has accomplished could well have had the same effect on an audience as that of the "Springtime for Hitler" number in THE PRODUCERS. Fortunately, that is not the case here.

Sondheim enthusiasts will turn their good ear in any direction he takes them, but . . . I wonder whether those who would follow "Maria Von Trapp" over the Alps would sit still in this shooting gallery. (I'd love to see this musical rotate with BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, a similarly eyebrow-raising and thought-provoking overview of our flawed seventh President.) I certainly have no problem with these varied and wrong-headed protagonists (I remember from my childhood an episode of THE UNTOUCHABLES, "The Guns of Zangara," about the attempted assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a marvelous performance by Robert Middleton as "Mayor Anton Cermak" of Chicago).

The set (well executed by Jimmy Humphries) is, appropriately, a shooting gallery in a rather dark, seedy-looking carnival, and as the barker summons the passersby to take aim, it becomes apparent that they are the assassins of American presidents - and a varied crew they are, with John Wilkes Booth (David Foster, suitably attired and accented - and possessing a fine singing voice) as their prototype and mentor. Sondheim endows each with a distinguishing characteristic - some of these characters are anguished and tortured; others, surprisingly, are comic (Carla McDonald's misfiring "Sara Jane Moore," lugging around her bucket of fried chicken and accidentally shooting her dog, is a delight; and Jonathan Christian's "Charles Guiteau" is clearly crazy - I once enjoyed a Gary Larson FAR SIDE cartoon in which a psychiatrist, listening to the babble of an obviously disturbed patient, jots down "just plain nuts," and that describes the Guiteau character perfectly). There are moments when characters are strangely sympathetic (a lost "Leon Czolgosz" - anxiously embodied by Marek Zurowski - clings to the charismatic "Emma Goldman"; a tortured "Giuseppe Zangara" - ripped by pains in his abdomen and played with intensity by Devin Altizer - thinks killing Franklin Roosevelt will bring about a cure), and there are moments when hilarity and horror hit "head on" (i.e., Cameron Reeves' Santa Claus-clad "Samuel Byck's brilliant bit of monologue).

Don't expect Sondheim to present any of this in any kind of chronological order; he seems more intent on balancing the emotional spectrum in a kind of seesaw between the horrific and the humorous. Tying it all together is a banjo-strumming Balladeer (given splendid voice by "Jean Valjean" himself, Philip Andrew Himebook). Sondheim seems to let each song evoke the kind of music popular during the period in which an assassination took place, and the numbers vary from the appropriately schizoid ("The Ballad of Guiteau") to the strangely touching ("Unworthy of Your Love," sung by Sterling Church's "John Hinkley" and Madeline Glenn Thomas' "'Squeaky' Fromme").

The only prolonged section of the play that seems devoid of music is the meeting of John Wilkes Booth with Lee Harvey Oswald - that was inevitable, though I think Sondheim unnecessarily prolongs the encounter; despite the fact that it was well played, my thumbs began to twiddle.

I'm not sure how the general audience will respond to ASSASSINS during its run. For example, the delivery of Devin Altizer's "How I Saved Roosevelt" deserves applause - but how heartily do you give it as he is bound and executed in an electric chair? Yet, John Weidman has provided a knowing, thought-provoking book (oddly enough, I found myself remember the late Steve Allen's MEETING OF THE MINDS, which also teased Public Television audiences with the imagined meetings of personalities from different ages and countries); and Sondheim's music, as always, is intelligent and interesting.

Director Dave Landis (assisted by Daniel L. Martin) moves the piece forward at a clipped pace (there's no intermission), and there isn't a blank cartridge in the arsenal of singers. The onstage orchestra is under the direction of David Kornfeld. Through March 22.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)