John Hinckley strums an acoustic guitar and sings a touching ballad to a photograph of Jodie Foster; a barbershop quartet of presidential assassins harmonizes sweetly about the empowering joy of gun ownership; would-be Gerald Ford killers Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore provide a bit of comic relief as they reminisce together and realize they both know the same Charles Manson.
These may not be the scenes that first come to mind when we think “classic American musical,” but they’re among the ones that lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer John Weidman set down when they created “Assassins” in 1990. “Oklahoma!” it ain’t, and thank goodness for that. It’s weirdly and defiantly itself, using the conventions of the popular American musical to tell a uniquely American story. And this relatively rarely produced Sondheim gem is getting a stellar production at Fabrefaction Theatre through November 11.
“Assassins” is set in an imagined carnival shooting gallery in which the historical lineup of presidential assassins and would-be assassins get a chance to have their say, sing their song and then take their shot. This is understandably controversial, touchy material, and perhaps because it came right after Sondheim’s popular and accessible “Into the Woods,” early audiences had trouble connecting with something this radically different. Though it had off-Broadway and London productions, the show didn’t arrive on Broadway until 2004. Then it was a hit and won five Tony Awards, suggesting that this singing and dancing kick line of assassins may just have been ahead of its time.
The musical doesn’t glorify or celebrate its subjects, but it does humanize them and, even more daringly, places them into a single context. “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong,” sings the balladeer (Jeremy Wood), our friendly, all-American narrator, at the show’s opening. “Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along. Doesn’t stop the story, story’s pretty strong.”
It’s how we tend to think of assassins. We classify them — usually correctly — as madmen, but we also think of them — perhaps unfairly — as interrupters of a story. “Assassins” insists that they are part of the American story, indeed they may be the American story. The assassins’ needs, their desires and their chosen means of expression may be extreme, but they are all also disturbingly recognizable, troublingly common. It’s the American dream — to be heard, to be known, to enact individual will on the larger world — taken to its most nightmarish expression. All of this is given sharp and insightful life in the Fabrefaction production.
Fabrefaction’s stage is a strange space, long and narrow like a Cinerama screen, but it’s utilized nicely in Jeffery Martin’s vintage-carnival set. Kevin Frazier’s antique vaudeville-style footlights complete the effect, and the whole thing ends up with a fittingly surreal, dreamlike look. Director Justin Anderson wisely highlights the comedic aspects of the script; the show otherwise could become leaden and hard to connect with.
The cast is very strong in challenging roles, both vocally and dramatically; it’s hard to imagine a better ensemble. (You try winning over an audience as batty, gun-toting housewife Sara Jane Moore. Here, it’s done brilliantly and hilariously by comic actress Heidi Cline McKerley.)
“Assassins” is a great, wonderfully weird show, but Sondheim’s ending — in which the other assassins collectively persuade Lee Harvey Oswald to act — feels a bit garbled and, at the same time, too tidy and pat. And although the production is always insightful and the cast is incredible, it’s hard to say you’ve been incredibly moved at the end of the evening by what Sondheim has showed you. It’s provocative, but what exactly has been provoked is hard to put your finger on.
Still, I was amazed at the quality of the production of this odd and wonderful Sondheim gem, and I’d easily place it among my top “can’t miss” shows of the year. I’m contemplating going again, which is rare for me. Fabrefaction made a splash this time last year with its production of the equally dark but very different Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd.” What a pleasure to see it return with an even more killer production of “Assassins.”