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Gerald Carpenter: Simi Valley to Stage Sondheim’s ‘Assassins’

Autumn’s first production from the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center will be Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, starring Will Shupe, Carla Lombardo Bambo, Jackee Bianchi, Michael Chandler, Kevin Ellis, Michael German, Kristine Gilreath, Levi Gotsman, Chris Kerrigan, Noah Kiedaisch, Genevieve Levin, Vincent Perez, Ryan Peterson, Kathleen Silverman and Auro Tosi.

The show is directed by Fred Helsel; choreographed by Becky Castells; and has music direction by Gary Poirot, scenic designs by  Seth Kamenow, lighting by Lauren Wemischner and costumes by Ken Patton.

Assassins opens Sept. 10 and runs through Oct. 16.

Assassins,” says the Simi Valley crew, “is both Stephen Sondheim’s dark exploration into the minds of the nine men and women who have attempted to assassinate the president of the United States, and his caustic analysis of the promise and failure of the American Dream.

“Given the current political climate, its themes are as relevant today as when the show was first performed. Maybe the most controversial Broadway musical ever written, Assassins aims to thrill and rarely misses.

“The great genius of contemporary musical theater, creator of Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Company, Stephen Sondheim leads audiences on a tuneful revue of presidential assassins and would-be killers from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley.

“This darkly comic journey takes the form of a carnival game, where the sounds of each era accompany riveting portrayals of history’s most impassioned and deranged.”

A friend of Billy Wilder’s once said of him, “He sees the worst in everybody, and he sees it funny.” Something similar could be said of Stephen Sondheim — a genre onto himself — except that his penchant seems to be for seeing something funny and endearing in the worst of people, then setting it to music.

Assassins is definitely a case in point. Of these nine men and women who killed — or tried to kill — the president of the United States of their time, not one deserves to be remembered, least of all those who actually succeeded in their attempts.

Still, if you are going to deal with them at all, it is better to treat them as comic, even farcical figures, rather than search for tragedy where there is none.

With the nine murderers and wannabes lined up before him, surrounded by a leering, avid crowd, the proprietor of the shooting gallery spins his wheel.

When it comes to rest, he calls out “Abraham Lincoln!” As Lincoln’s portrait appears as a target, John Wilkes Booth, suddenly in the spotlight, raises his pistol while the other eight flee to the wings and the audience laughs.

“Sic semper tyrannus!” shouts Booth, without much conviction. The audience laughs some more. He turns and fires.

Somehow, Sondheim gets away with it. He treats some of the worst moments in America’s history like a Weimar game show, at the same time making it impossible to take offense without feeling a fool and a hypocrite. But then, he is a genius, after all, and Assassins is riveting theater.

In 1963, the year JFK was shot, there were more murders in the city of Dallas than there were in all of the British Isles.

Assassins plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays from Sept. 10 to Oct.16.

Tickets are $24 for adults, $20 for seniors 60 and above and students (production not recommended for children), and they can be purchased at the box office (3050 E. Los Angeles Ave.), by phone at 805.583.7900 or online at www.simi-arts.org

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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