Killer Comedy

Stephen Sondheim's Assassins looks great on paper: a musical in which four assassins and five failed would-be killers sing and dance about the joys of killing or trying to kill presidents and other VIPs. And, in fact, Assassins is a darkly brilliant musical full of astonishingly naughty humor and wicked tunes about the joys of murder. Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of performances and an attractive set design, its current production by Is What It Is Theater is mostly a disappointment.

Assassins takes place in a vague netherworld where musical miscreants interact with each other and take turns reenacting their real-life crimes. There's Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who shot William McKinley; Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield; Guiseppe Zangara, who took a shot at FDR; Sara Jane Moore, who went out after Gerald Ford; Manson gal pal Squeaky Fromme, who also tried to shoot Ford; John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to prove his love to Jodie Foster; Samuel Byck, who failed to murder Richard Nixon; and John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, who become chummy just before curtain.

With Assassins, Sondheim and librettist John Weidman have subverted musical comedy, a genre usually concerned with flashy kick lines and sweetly scored love stories, and come up with a gloomily adult entertainment that finds us sympathizing with Samuel Byck and laughing with Sara Jane Moore, who's portrayed here as a frazzled PTA mom with a fear of firearms. Assassins isn't all fun and games; witness Sondheim's "Something Just Broke," an ensemble number in which each cast member recalls where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot.

These quick shifts between dark comedy and tragedy require a cast that can handle lightning-quick mood changes as well as the tricky vocal gymnastics of Sondheim's chamber music score. Although the IWII ensemble isn't always up to the challenge, there are some standout performances here. Wes Martin plays Charles Guiteau as a zany funster who can't get a break. His rowdy performance and big singing voice make his giddy execution scene a howler, and I can still hear him bellowing the refrain "I am going to the Lordy . . ."

Scott Schmelder, an actor whose more-than-passing resemblance to Charlie Brown delighted my theater companion, is a brightly comic Balladeer, whose job it is to link the assassins' stories with musical narration. Young Michael Bradley is first-rate as Hinckley, particularly in his duet with Squeaky Fromme, "Unworthy of Your Love," in which each sings about love and death to a photo of their beloved -- Hinckley to Jodie Foster, Fromme to Charlie Manson. But the final sequence, in which the assassins implore Lee Harvey Oswald to pull his infamous trigger, belongs entirely to Michael Peck, whose creepy killer is a captivating collection of nervous tics and manic line readings.

The handsome set design, made entirely of faded newspapers, reveals various set pieces via swinging doors and secret panels, but when portraits and quotations are flashed onto a video screen, they're so small that we can't read them or make out the faces. The mostly prerecorded music (played "live" by synth pianist Russ Noble) is tinny and anemic, and a mess of missed sound cues turn an already also-ran production into a near miss. As with any Sondheim musical, there's only one truly memorable song. My pals and I left the theater humming the chorus to "Everybody's Got the Right," and wishing we'd seen a better production of this wonderfully dark musical comedy.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela