Heritage Theatre Group doesn’t usually offer musicals as part of their season roster of classic plays, but that didn’t hinder director Krista Pennington’s ability to successfully fill the roles of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins,” with book by John Weidman. Each actor in the production brings the characters to life with songs that pull the audience in even as the subject matter might otherwise push one away. It’s a commendable balance in the tension between empathy and revulsion.
Running about two hours without intermission, “Assassins” is presented outside of chronological time and mostly in small vignettes that help get to know each character and their situation better. The actors, more than the writing, are what make these so fun to watch, as the vignettes give them a chance to shine and it’s apparent each has dug deep into understanding what makes their historical figures tick. While the play uses humor and a carnivalesque style to have fun with such a dark topic, the actors approach the characters with underlying sincerity.
Some of the presidents and their assassins (and would be assassins) are more well-known than others, I admit I got a bit of a political science refresher course with some of the players on the timeline between Lincoln and Kennedy. It sorted out easy enough, especially with help from the period costumes (Dana Roesler, Aynsley Douglas) and references to the cultural context and changing issues facing this country over time.
Each actor did their part as well to contextualize the times while delivering a timeless message: Ryan Owen plays Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President William McKinley; Ian McDonough is John Hinckley Jr., attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan; Shane German is Charles J. Guiteau, assassin of President James Garfied; Ricardo Tavarez is Guiseppe Zangara, attempted assassination of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt; Charles Decker is Samuel Byck, attempted assassin of President Richard Nixon; Hope Swanson is Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Eva Switek is Sara Jane Moore, attempted assassins of President Gerald Ford; Nate Reynolds is John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln; and William Porter is Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Ensemble and other characters help round out the story, played by Audrey Moore, Katy Scott, Jeffrey Wyckoff, Rod Zamarron, and Drake Selleck.
The Proprietor (Amy Cain) and Balladeer (also played by Porter) have their moments too, expanding the psychological profiles of these assassins as well as the American culture at large. The play is at its most compelling when all characters–spanning that history from the age of Lincoln to the Reagan era–band together to share the stage in solidarity and twisted justification of aiming a gun at a President of the United States. “Assassins” was written in 1990, yet in our own political times brings a heightened awareness and critical eye to the complicated idea of the American Dream.
“Assassins” runs through August 18 at Spectrum Theatre. Ticket information at heritagetheatregr.org.