by Terrance V. Mc Arthur
Over forty Americans have become President of the United States, but only four Americans have been able to kill a President.
Who is more American? Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth? John F. Kennedy or Lee Harvey Oswald? The Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins looks at those questions by prying into the souls and psyches of the people who have killed—or tried to kill—Commanders-in-Chief. Performed Off-Broadway in 1990 and on the Great White Way in 2004 (delayed several years from its scheduled opening that was right after 9/11), the productions have featured Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), Victor Garber (Godspell, Titanic), Greg Germann (Ally MacBeal), and Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M. D., How I Met Your Mother). It’s a challenging show to watch, and Fresno State’s Brad Myers faced a major hurdle in directing the production; how can you get an audience to root for a bunch of President-killers and wannabes? Nevertheless, the script draws us in with short scenes revolving around individual characters and combinations that could never have met.
There’s Ronald Reagan-shooter John Hinckley (Daniel Rodriguez) and his obsession for Jodi Foster, William McKinley-killer Leon Czolgosz Shawn Richard Pereira) and his stalker-love of anarchist Emma Goldman, and Gerald Ford-misser Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Caitlin Stevenson) and her passion for Charles Manson. Some assassins are not familiar to many people, like Sam Byck (Miguel Gastelum), who tried to crash a 747 on Richard Nixon, or Guiseppe Zangara (Ryan D. Torres), whose intestinal problems motivated him to try to kill President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt in Florida and led to the electric chair, three weeks after the mayor of Chicago died from one of his bullets. Of course, there’s John Wilkes Booth (Darren Tharp), the assassin all the others look up to, defer to, and admire.
Rodriguez and Stevenson offer chilling love songs to their chosen beloveds in a mind-rattling sequence. Leslie Martin as Sara Jane Moore is on target as a ditsy housewife out to get Gerald Ford and respect, even if her attempts are off-target. As the Balladeer, Matthew Freitas offers folksy songs describing the denizens of this Hall of Shame with a pleasant, loving smile and a knowing twist of the words.
The songs are not the Hit-Paradish tunes of Sondheim’s early years, but boldly pushing at the edges of the listener’s tastes, with echoes of traditional marches and presidential themes. This is not a musical for children, with strong language, unpleasant situations (Hey, it’s about a bunch of people who want to commit murder!), and gunshots and flashing lights.
It’s a fantastic play, fodder for many after-show conversations, and will have you reflecting on the American Dream, and how anyone can grow up to be President…or a President’s killer.
Performances at CSU, Fresno are May 4-5, 8-12 at 8pm, and a May 6 matinee at 2pm. Tickets are $17, and $12 for students. For information call the box office at (559) 278-2216.
Check out a Behind the Musical article here at KRL to learn more about this show’s history, and read an interview with director Brad Myers.