Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the only one to have a gun pointed at him in a theater. Should you find yourself in the audience at Cygnet Theatre’s Assassins, you will have six or seven guns pointed at you, only nobody pulls the trigger. The disconcertion is only one byproduct of this moderately subversive musical by Stephen Sondheim (with a book by John Weidman) that tells the tales of America’s most notorious slayers and would-be slayers of chief executives, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Cygnet’s Sean Murray directs a vigorous staging that intermittently shocks, amuses and explicates. That it never finds a consistent tone is not so much the shortcoming of this production as it is Sondheim and Weidman’s original work, first produced 23 years ago. A few sequences impress and disturb on a profound level (Hinckley’s twisted ode to Jodie Foster and “Squeaky” Fromme’s even more twisted ode to Charlie Manson, “Unworthy of Your Love” or the other assassins’ enticement of Lee Oswald to join their ranks). But Assassins careens from carnival shooting gallery to, in the case of McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz (Jason Maddy), haunted gunman of dark conviction, to broad comic pratfalls (Melissa Fernandes as Fromme and Melinda Gilb as fellow Gerald Ford stalker Sara Jane Moore).
It’s not until the last half-hour, when the sights are set on Oswald (Jacob Caltrider) and that November day in Dallas that Assassins crystallizes. The post-assassination “Something Just Broke” brings heartache to what had been a more calculated narrative, an intent to remind us that behind every assassin’s malevolence is a troubled or misguided human being, that as the show’s principal tune decrees “Everybody’s Got the Right” (to be happy).
Assassins’ deft cast also includes Braxton Molinaro as the stentorian Booth and Kurt Norby, eerily moving as Hinckley. The invaluable Sandy Campbell is here, too, though other than a brief turn as immigrant anarchist Emma Goldman, she doesn’t get enough to do.
Be prepared: Assassins is a lengthy-one-act musical. The hanging of Garfield killer Charles Guiteau (Carr) would have made a dramatic halfway pause, but the show goes on. No rest for the armed and deadly.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.