The lyric “everybody’s got the right to their dreams” could come from almost any Broadway musical. But when an ensemble of singing actors performs that number at Center Stage Theater during the next two weeks, the words will be more unsettling than uplifting.
The performers will be portraying real-life characters, men and women who pursued the American dream but ultimately felt let down—robbed of the success they had been implicitly promised. Although they live in different eras, each has found an identical outlet for his or her rage and disappointment.
They’ve decided to kill the president.
John Wilkes Booth, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Lee Harvey Oswald—they all tell their stories in Stephen Sondheim’s darkly brilliant 1991 musical Assassins. The show will be performed May 4-15 by the ambitious new Out of the Box Theatre Company.
Director Samantha Eve notes that the characters embody “the very human desire to be understood and recognized for your talents, skills, and abilities. This play doesn’t mean to tell you what they did was okay, but it helps us to understand them. It reminds you that they are human.”
“The play doesn’t pardon their flaws, but it doesn’t set out to villainize them,” she added. “There’s a moment with each of these characters when you stop being able to relate to them—and start feeling uncomfortable that you did in the first place!”
The uncomfortable subject matter may explain why Assassins—in spite of a critically acclaimed, Tony Award-winning 2004 Broadway production—remains one of Sondheim’s more obscure shows. Eve, however, feels it’s perfect for her young company, which specializes in edgy musicals.
The 26-year-old, who grew up in Santa Barbara, earned a degree in musical theater at New York University before moving back home to start a dessert catering business. When she found herself missing the theater, she formed her own company last year with the help of her mother, Anacapa School drama teacher Salli Eve.
Assassins will be the troupe’s third production at Center Stage Theater, following Reefer Madness last spring and Hair last fall. “I wanted to shake up the Santa Barbara theater community a little—give it something a little edgier, a little different,” she said. “I want to appeal to a younger generation of theatergoers, but not exclude the older generation.”
This “glitteringly dark musical” (to quote New York Times critic Ben Brantley) should have that cross-generational appeal. Veteran musical theater buffs will appreciate its superb craftsmanship. “It’s such well-thought-out, clever music,” Eve said. “Everything Sondheim does, he does for a reason.”
Meanwhile, those looking for contemporary resonance will have no trouble finding it. One recurring theme—the desire for fame—is even more pervasive in the culture today than it was when the show premiered 20 years ago (the pre-reality-TV era).
And then there’s the theme of using gun violence to get revenge on the political structure—an issue that came up yet again when Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona earlier this year.
“We’re just a very violent culture,” Eve said. “We’re renting something like nine different guns, so we could be as accurate as possible as to the type of firearm each assassin used. Each of them is feeling powerless; their gun gives them power.”
Classically trained pianist Mandee Sikich will be the one-person orchestra; the much-praised veteran Ted Dolas will create the scenic design. “It’s one of his favorite shows,” Eve said. “He has come up with some great ideas. We’re incorporating multimedia projections. It has a very carnival feel.”
So step right up, ladies and gentlemen: Step into the shoes of a presidential assassin. The fit may be better than you ever imagined.
Assassins shows May 4-15 (Wed.-Sat. at 8pm and Sun. at 2pm) at Center Stage Theater (upstairs in Paseo Nuevo at Chapala and De la Guerra sts.). Tickets are $25 ($15 for students). Call 963-0408 or see outoftheboxtheatre.org.