Of all the unconventional subjects explored by Stephen Sondheim on the musical stage, the most unlikely is America's presidential assassins and would-be assassins.
With a roster of songs influenced by each assassin's time period -- from anthems to Sousa marches to folk songs -- the score of Assassins is among Sondheim's most tuneful and accessible. But the subject of his 1991 collaboration with playwright John Weidman is another matter.
Staging this show is a gutsy move. Staging it as proficiently as director Robert W. Oppel has done at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre is a triumph. Over the years I have seen a number of ambitious shows that more than have justified this little theater's mission of giving artists a place to experiment and grow. This production is one of them.
Disparate as his musicals may seem, Sondheim's shows frequently focus on characters who feel alienated or outside the mainstream. Nowhere is that theme more evident than in this odd revue, loosely set in a saloon where the Proprietor (slick Kevin Kostic) sells guns along with liquor to assassins who lived a century apart. Craving attention or understanding or love or simply a platform from which to be heard, the show's nine killers and killer-wannabes discover their first real sense of community in this mysterious place where the Proprietor urges them, "Feel misunderstood?/C'mere and kill a president."
Grossly misinterpreting the Declaration of Independence's unalienable right of "the pursuit of happiness," these lost souls feel cheated and, in many cases, overlooked. How many people know the name of President Garfield's killer, Charles Guiteau? In the show, the eccentric author and preacher (jauntily played by Stuart Goldberg) highsteps his way to the gallows singing, "I am going to the Lordy,/I am so glad!" And who remembers Samuel Byck, an out-of-work tire salesman (portrayed with Ralph Kramden gusto by Thom Sinn) who planned to kill President Nixon by flying a plane into the White House? Or Leon Czolgosz (Jeffrey Hawks), the anarchist who killed McKinley, or Giuseppe Zangara (Chris Hornberg), the immigrant who took aim at FDR?
But then Lee Harvey Oswald (meek Shane Logue) shows up at the end. And, after being encouraged by Edward J. Peters' suave, assured John Wilkes Booth and all the assassins, Oswald raises his rifle. When Oswald strikes down one of this country's most popular leaders, the now-united assassins feel redeemed ("We admire you ... /We're your family...").
This is an eerie commentary, but its point is made with stirring dexterity at the Spotlighters, where the only overwrought portrayals are those of the two female characters, Sarah Jane Moore and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, both of whom tried to kill President Ford.
Oppel's greatest directorial license comes after Kennedy is shot, when he projects the Zapruder film on a screen in a corner of the theater. If there were any question of the musical "glorifying" assassins, as some initially claimed, this documentary footage offers a perspective-restoring jolt. There may be a lot of song -- and even some dance -- in Assassins, but it's hardly fun and games. And this production gets it chillingly right.
Assassins runs through March 18 at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St. Tickets are $15. Call 410-752-1225 or visit spotlighters.org.
The shows go on
Sandy Richmond, executive director of the Lyric Opera House, wants to reassure patrons that the cancellation of the subscription season by Performing Arts Productions does not affect the rest of the Lyric schedule. "We have presentations from opera to Jesus Christ Superstar to popular entertainment shows to gospel plays," Richmond explained.
He said the Lyric is trying to work with Performing Arts' customers by exchanging their tickets for other performances. For example, some patrons who purchased tickets to Whoopi Goldberg's January engagement -- another canceled Performing Arts offering -- have elected to see comedian Katt Williams in March.
"We don't generate any revenue from it -- at times we're losing money -- but we have been able to accommodate some patrons to other shows," Richmond said.
For a full schedule of Lyric events, go to lyric operahouse.com.
Two noteworthy theater events are coming up at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The IN 10 Theatre Festival and National Play Competition, which "seeks to address the scarcity of strong roles for young women in contemporary American plays," will present five short plays today through Sunday by playwrights Ira Gamerman, EM Lewis, Heather McDonald, Ruth McKee and Mark Young. And, at 7 p.m. March 9, the theater department will offer a lecture by avant-garde playwright/director Lee Breuer.
Tickets to the IN 10 performances are $10. The Breuer lecture is free, but reservations are recommended. Call 410-752-8950 or go to umbc.edu/arts.