CEDAR RAPIDS — “Assassins” is freaky cool fun in concept and execution, even if the subject matter is about as chilling as it gets.
It’s a show that premiered off-Broadway in 1990 and didn’t gain much traction, but when it catapulted onto Broadway in 2004, it swept up five Tony Awards, including “best revival of a musical.”
I had never seen it and never heard the music before attending Thursday’s (2/16) final dress rehearsal at Theatre Cedar Rapids. It’s now one of my favorite Stephen Sondheim musicals, besides “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Sweeney Todd.” “Assassins” is all of those rolled into one, as it examines the motives of the men and women who succeeded or attempted to kill American presidents, from John Wilkes Booth killing Abraham Lincoln to Sara Jane Moore aiming at Gerald Ford.
The premise is dark, but the show is not. It’s fast-paced, stunning to look at and sung exceptionally well by a dozen people, backed by Benjamin Schmidt’s excellent orchestra. In true Sondheim form, some of the songs so rapid-fire that the lyrics miss their mark.
The action plays out against a decaying backdrop that includes a fragmented American flag, strings of Edison bulbs and red, white and blue overhead lights that suggest a demented carnival — complete with a tattooed barker (Jon Day) who sets the scene and strolls in and out throughout the show, with a menacing swagger. Devoid of curtains to hide the ropes, pipes, bricks and actors in the wings, the environment is laid as bare as the tormented souls seeking a way to change the world.
The assassins meet up and interact with each other, regardless of the eras in which they lived. The costumes place each one in real time as the characters agonize and antagonize, incite action, champion their causes and occasionally give the audience much welcomed places to laugh.
Erin Helm as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Marcia Hughes as Sara Jane Moore — both of whom tried within two weeks of each other to kill Gerald Ford — have hysterical moments when their worlds collide. Helm as an intense, hippie devotee of Charles Manson irks and amuses Hughes as a bumbling housewife who keeps shooting off her gun at inopportune moments. Aaron Murphy pops in and out with a disarming, maniacal grin as Charles Guiteau, the man who killed James Garfield.
Everyone else is just plain scary.
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Special nods go to Sage Spiker as Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley, John Zbanek Hill as Samuel Byck, who tried to kill Richard Nixon, and Daniel Kelchen as John Wilkes Booth, who blamed Lincoln for killing his country. Each one has shattering monologues that show just how easily people with broken spirits can slip into irrational actions to make their voices heard.
Warnings: The show runs nearly two hours with no intermission. It is intended for mature audiences, with bits of strong language and a lot of gunfire that never misses its target under Leslie Charipar’s deft direction.
- What: “Assassins”
- Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
- When: Through March 4; 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays
- Tickets: $24 to $33, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
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