Out of the Box Theatre Company has taken on one of America’s most challenging plays with its new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, and the results are largely encouraging. The show itself, which is a revue/musical that brings together nine historical figures that assassinated or attempted to assassinate various American presidents, has significant flaws. The music, which can be quite good, doesn’t create the kind of progression typical of a strong book, and the plot, such as it is, relies too much on imaginative hypothetical scenarios such as “What if John Wilkes Booth was in the Book Depository urging Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy?” That said, some of the material is strong, and the basic concept—that the American dream tends to create losers alongside the winners—is a compelling one.
This production, which was guest-directed by Sara Rademacher, makes the most out of Center Stage’s black box by using a variety of stage levels and effective lighting cues to organize the action and hold the scenes together. The large cast accomplishes the difficult task of making Sondheim’s music both intelligible in relation to the plot and worth hearing on its own. The songs all reference existing American musical traditions, and it is on numbers such as “Gun Song,” “The Ballad of Guiteau,” and “Another National Anthem,” that the show achieves its aim of bringing history alive. The dramatic scenes are more hit-and-miss. Samantha Eve and Carol Metcalf are effectively kooky and creepy as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, respectively. Joseph Beck does outstanding work with the two bizarre monologues of Nixon assassin-wannabe Samuel Byck. Robert Grayson carries some of the show’s heaviest burdens in terms of continuity and the development of themes as Charles Guiteau, the madman who assassinated president James Garfield in July of 1881. As the Balladeer (a narrative device) and later as Oswald, Adam Quinney sings well and acts effectively, especially when called upon to intervene in the lives of the many and historically diverse other characters.
Elisha Schaefer also has a lot to do as the deeply disturbed, socially conscious, and lovelorn (for Emma Goldman, no less!) Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz killed president William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901. His connections, however distorted by mental illness, to more established and legitimate figures from the anarchist counterculture could provide the show with an anchor on which to found its ambitious premise, but despite the best efforts of the performer and the production, Assassins has a decided tendency to separate into its distinct elements, rather than add up to something more. Other cases in point are Giuseppe Zangara (Jason Bornstein) and John Hinckley Jr. (Miguel Miranda), both of whom contribute interesting moments, but not turning points or epiphanies.
Ultimately, the sheer ambition of Assassins becomes its own nemesis, the evil figure lurking in the shadows waiting to undo the show’s significant achievements. When Booth visits Oswald, it’s not only implausible; it’s also not believable, even in the alternative universe that Sondheim and playwright John Weidman have created. For fans of alternative musical theater, American history buffs, and anyone who wants to cheer on young artists of unquestionable talent and enterprise, Assassins is nevertheless worth seeing.