WARWICK, R.I. — Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote a bouncy song for the musical “Assassins” that says, “Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”
We’re not singing, however, about your average dream. We’re singing about assassinating a president.
Dark and comic, this also is not your average musical. It is a series of vignettes starring nine notorious Americans who have tried or succeeded in assassinating a president.
Absurdly, the setting is a carnival, and the current production at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is like a three-ring circus packed onto one stage. Director Tony Estrella has reconfigured seating to a theater-in-the-round format and juggles action across the space, up and down platforms at left and right, and even involves musicians in the orchestra pit carved out of center stage.
It’s mesmerizing. Lots of movement, music and crazy characters – some quite literally – keep us engaged. Amid the laughs there are gasps, as well as exploration of what the heck made these folks do what they did.
Their motives sometimes reflect cracks in the veneer of the American Dream, such as a disparity in wealth or opportunity; often it’s personal, like a need for recognition; and sometimes political. John Wilkes Booth, introduced as the “pioneer” among the assassins, references the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of President Abraham Lincoln.
So he and other assassins harmonize cheerfully, “All you have to do is/Move your little finger” — as in pulling a trigger — “and you can change the world.”
This song aside, Sondheim’s music is hardly hummable, but it is distinctive, frequently gorgeous and always perfect for telling this kind of off-beat story. His lyrics, moreover, are so quotable. Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James Garfield, claims a spiritual motive and sings, “The Lord’s my employer, and now he’s my lawyer.”
Music director Lila Kane keeps Sondheim’s score firmly under control as performed by keyboardists Milly Massey and Emily Turtle, bassist Brian Grochowski and several musicians in the cast.
While the instrumentals are wonderful, the actors’ singing voices are uneven. Several are good, including Eden Casteel as the Proprietor, an emcee of sorts, and Balladeer Nile Scott Hawver. Others do their best and make up for not hitting all the high notes vocally by doing exactly that in their portrayals. Alexander Platt may never make a recording, but he is memorable as Booth, the pioneer among assassins.
Casey Seymour Kim puts her gift for comedy to hilarious use as Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Her interactions with Charles Manson disciple Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, well played by a “groovy” Amanda Ruggiero, are highlights.
Gabriel Graetz gives a full-bodied performance as Garfield assassin Guiteau, while Hawver, the balladeer, also portrays Lee Harvey Oswald with emotion in a speculative take on that character’s motivation.
Although “Assassins” debuted in 1990 and a 2004 revival won five Tony Awards, it hasn’t been done to death, so to speak, locally or in touring productions. That’s reason enough to see it, and you can go confident that you’re in for a creative and intelligent production.
Performances of “Assassins” continue through March 29 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd. Tickets are $45, $55 and $65, by phone at (401) 723-4266 or online at gammtheatre.org.