Devoting an entire show to some of history’s most notorious murderers would seem to be a monumentally ill-advised idea. Doing the show as a musical would seem to be an act of insanity. It is to the credit of famed composer Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods) that Assassins works as well as it does. I found this to be an odd show, but also fascinating.
There is no conventional story; rather, a series of dramatic vignettes interspersed with songs. Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth delivers an impassioned speech justifying his actions. There is a fantasy sequence where Booth and other notorious killers try to goad Lee Harvey Oswald into assassinating John F. Kennedy. We also see lesser known figures, such as Charles Guiteau, an American writer and lawyer who assassinated President James Garfield; Giuseppe Zangara, the assassin of Anton Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago, and Sam Byck, who attempted to hijack a plane with the intention of crashing it into the White House in an effort to kill President Richard Nixon.
The performers, under the expert direction of Joan Dillenback, bring tremendous depth and power to these individuals. Erik Ross is a superb Booth, he’s resentful and brooding. Greg Bonin displays tremendous passion as Leon Czolgoz, a former steel worker who assassinated President William McKinley. Stephanie Post is affectionately nutty as “Squeaky” Fromme, a Charles Manson disciple. Michael Pugliese is chilling as the deeply angry Byck. Tom Lavallee has an impish charm as Guiteau. Nick Autiello does double duty as The Balladeer and Oswald. He does a magnificent job portraying Oswald as a haunted man. Elizabeth Messier gives a charming comic performance as Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to shoot President Gerald Ford. In one of the strangest moments of the show, Moore tries to shoot a bucket of fried chicken.
One of the show’s big songs is “Everybody’s Got the Right,” when the group of assassins express their right to be happy by killing their enemies.
So as you can guess, Assassins is a show with some very dark themes. Although the songs are fun, we are still spending time with violent individuals who created a lot of misery in people’s lives. But despite the gloom, Assassins is thought-provoking and well made.
Assassins runs through May 22. Barker Playhouse. 400 Benefit St, Providence. For tickets, call 401-273-0590.