When the name Stephen Sondheim comes up, we perhaps think of catchy tunes from Gypsy or West Side Story. Or maybe his modern twist on fairy tales, Into the Woods. What probably doesn’t leap to mind is a surreal carnival shooting gallery attracting a group of disgruntled or otherwise disturbed individuals who have taken (or attempted to take) the lives of U.S. presidents throughout American history.
But that is precisely what Assassins, arguably his least-known musical, involves. Out of the Box Theatre Co., one of Santa Barbara’s newest performing arts organizations, has tackled this complex and multifaceted musical play with a light and sure touch.
The multitalented Samantha Eve, founder and producer of the company, directs this production as well as playing the part of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Self-professed “lover and slave” of Charles Manson, Fromme attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975.
With music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by John Weidman, Assassins first opened off-Broadway in 1990, and the 2004 Broadway production won five Tony Awards. The Broadway debut was originally scheduled for 2001 but was postponed because the content was considered sensitive in light of the events of 9/11. It is ironic, then, that the Santa Barbara debut comes just days after another incident with global implications, seen by some as a response to these events.
Theodore Michael Dolas did a fine job with lighting and set design, creating an old-time carnival feel with posters and even the shadow of a ferris wheel projected onto the backdrop. The set was versatile, however, and transformed smoothly from scene to scene as various settings were called for, occasionally returning to carnival mode.
The play opens at the carnival, as the eight assassins wander up to the shooting gallery, encouraged by The Proprieter (a sideshow barker type played with great conviction and natural energy by Christopher Lee Short), who distributes guns of the appropriate historical type to each. Many are hesitant and appear undecided about their future deadly actions. The Proprieter is somewhat omniscient, though not a narrator. He is more a caretaker of the action, also providing sound effects at pivotal moments by popping balloons.
Adam Quinney is the Balladeer, who narrates and comments on portions of the show in song. He hits just the right notes, so to speak, of detached commentary interspersed with investment in the action. There is a surprising twist near the end when he morphs into an essential character in the drama — a notorious assassin himself.
The various characters are highlighted in vignettes from their lives. Sam Byck (played by Joseph Beck with great intensity) rants into a tape recorder to Leonard Bernstein as he, in a Santa suit, prepares to shoot President Richard Nixon. Sara Jane Moore (Carol Metcalf, at once ditzy and strangely level-headed) totes a bucket of KFC chicken and a can of Tab as she reminisces about knowing Charles Manson in high school.
Chad Collins, who provided a solid anchor to the rest of the cast, as John Wilkes Booth, fresh from his leap out of the theater box where he shot President Abraham Lincoln, grimaces in pain but is intent on recording his thoughts in his diary before attempting an escape. Charles Guiteau (Robert Grayson, bringing considerable nuance to this complex character) literally sings and dances on his way to the gallows after shooting President James Garfield.
At several points throughout, all the assassins are gathered together in Limbo, where they discuss motivations, the finer points of their plans and the life circumstances bringing them to such a place.
Dark, and sometimes goofy, humor is well-balanced against agonizing moments of pain and self-doubt. The contrast of highs and the lows produces a deeply textured experience for the audience.
The ensemble is fantastic here, too, often providing a Greek chorus commenting on the action as well as playing bit parts. Emily Jewell, whose singing voice is clear as a bell, has a cameo as Emma Goldman that is inspiring and touching. And Christopher Roteman as Billy, Moore’s young son, has a notable moment of tantrum-y meltdown that should not be missed.
Even on opening night, which can often be rough as a company irons out the details, Wednesday evening’s show was smooth and polished, and the actors just seemed comfortable in their parts. Running for the next two weekends — May 6-8 and May 12-15 — Assassins is thought-provoking, surprisingly funny and highly recommended.
— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.