This 1990 musical by Sondheim and John Weidman explores the dark side of the American dream - a dream where, as Weidman's book puts it, anyone can grow up to be the President - or to kill the President. Assassins examines the lives of the nine men and women who assassinated (or attempted to assassinate) American presidents, but it never attempts to glorify them; instead it explores a perverse but fascinating world where the killers become famous but are left to ask, "Where's my prize?" Desperate for love and attention, Sondheim turns these killers into twisted song-and-dance stars who can't resist the urge to make a vivid exit, even as they are being hung or electrocuted.
Weidman's book for Assassins zips around in time, from a 1933 attempt on FDR's life to the 1881 killing of James Garfield, all in an attempt to show what binds this bizarre group of killers and would-be killers together. While their motives ranged from politics to personal matters to full-blown insanity, all, in Sondheim and Weidman's view, saw their crimes as an attempt to leave their own perverted mark on the world. In the climax, apparitions of the assassins appear before Lee Harvey Oswald in the Texas School Book Depository, urging him to pull the trigger: "Without you, we're just footnotes in a history book ... with you, we're a force of history."
Sondheim's score is staggering in scope, its lyrical depth, and its melodic invention. The score seems cohesive, yet encompasses styles that range from folk ("The Ballad of Booth") to folk-rock ("Unworthy of Your Love"), from vaudeville ("The Ballad of Guiteau") to Sousa-style march (the snappy "How I Saved Roosevelt").
The Arden's production benefits from its setting in a high-tech modern shooting gallery, a hall of mirrors designed by David P. Gordon that juts into the audience and accentuates the threatening attitudes of these killers. It's very different in style from the Broadway production of Assassins of a few seasons ago - although Nolen does tip his hat to John Doyle's Broadway productions of Sweeney Todd and Company by having his actors pop up from time to time playing musical instruments (including trombone, trumpet, accordion and tenor banjo).
Jorge Cousineau's projections are consistently clever, but there are times when they seem gimmicky, like having John Hinckley and "Squeaky" Fromme sing to images of Jodie Foster and Charles Manson in "Unworthy Of Your Love." Mostly, though, Nolen handles the projections with dignified restraint. In Sondheim's masterful song "Something Just Broke," as everyday citizens react to the shock of the assassinations, we see Walter Cronkite broadcasting the news of the shooting of JFK; but when the news breaks that "The President is dead," the projections stop, and these ordinary Americans are left alone to struggle with their overwhelming grief.
Nolen has elicited strong performances from a cast made up largely of Arden regulars. Jeffrey Coon is powerful and intense as Booth, whose rage at how his country was torn apart does not subside even after he kills the man he holds responsible. Christopher Patrick Mullen is also excellent as Leon Czolgosz, whose radical politics drive him to kill William McKinley, and Ben Dibble does a nice job as a plaintive Balladeer (although his voice is drowned out by the orchestra at times). There are also some terrific comic performances: James Sugg as a showboating Charles Guiteau who kills Garfield, then does a morbid dance on his way up to the gallows; Mary Martello, hilarious as the scatterbrained Sara Jane Moore, whose attempt to kill Gerald Ford goes awry; and, best of all, Scott Greer, remarkable as Philadelphia's own loudmouthed lunatic Sam Byck, whose effort to kill Dick Nixon failed in a big way - like nearly everything else he did in his life. Timothy Hill and Jim Poulos also impress, although Jay Pierce (as the Proprietor) and Erin Brueggemann (as Fromme) seem to be playing at a lower energy level than their co-stars. (An extended comedy routine with Brueggemann and Martello nearly stops the show dead in its tracks, despite Martello's best efforts.)
Assassins' running time is about ninety minutes, and nearly every one of those minutes is unsettling and spellbinding. That's what makes it a must-see.
Assassins runs through October 21, 2007 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $45 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.