Los Altos Stage's 'Assassins' Kills It

The Stephen Sondheim production redifines what a musical can be
John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz: just three of the demented narcissists portrayed in 'Assassins.'

In the real world, killing the president is high treason. But in Los Altos Stage Company's latest production, Assassins, the murder—or attempted murder—of the Commander in Chief serves as a springboard into an an unlikely romp.

The Stephen Sondheim musical opens at a turn-of-the-century-political-rally. Soft jazz and ragtime drift out of the wings, which are constructed as plank-like walls adorned with stars, as the cast sings the musical's best-known song, "Everybody's Got the Right."

This first song treats political assassination as something in which anyone can participate—indeed, as an egalitarian and oddly patriotic activity. Regardless of content, all of the songs in Assassins are upbeat; Sondheim shrewdly creates cognitive dissonance in his audience. Some of the songs are soulful, others more wild and jazzy, but all are played with grace by the live (if hidden) band.

Each of the characters is first shown meeting a sly carnival barker—one assumes this is Satan—offering happiness, recognition and glory through the act of murdering an American president.

The first real scene opens into the aftermath of President Lincoln's assassination. The assailant, John Wilkes Booth, is wounded in a barn and desperately trying to write a letter justifying his actions. But it's too late—and as the barn burns, the narrator advances both mockery and compassion for Booth's act, a theme that grows larger throughout the production. Played by Chase Campbell, Booth has the deep, commanding baritone one would expect from a famous actor possessed by a romantically sinister obsession.

Next up is President James Garfield's killer, Charles Guiteau. Played by Ken Boswell, Guiteau is splendidly self-important, with a delusional confidence that seems above the other players in this story—yet he's still so deluded he recites a hackneyed poem during his execution.

Then, briefly, we meet Giuseppe Zangara, played by Anthony Stephens. Suffering from chronic stomach pains, which he blames on capitalism, Zangara attempted to shoot President Franklin Roosevelt in Chicago but missed, killing instead the city's mayor, Anton Cermak.

Almost simultaneously the production introduces Leon Czolgosz, the son of Polish immigrants, who ended up killing President William McKinley. Played by Andy Cooperfauss, Czolgosz has the lifeless eyes and hair-trigger temper of an angry and dispossessed man, and serves as one of the more ideological members of this ragtag gang.

Philomena Block gives the standout performance as Sarah Jane Moore. She's sassy but square in her demeanor. A pathological liar, she is somehow endearing in her blatant fraudulence, and seemingly the most sane member of the Assassin's group. And yet she is the quickest to fall into berserker mode. Another standout performance is Todd Wright, as Samuel Byck, who intended to knock off Richard Nixon by crashing a hijacked plane into the White House. This alcoholic used-tire salesman, utterly bitter with the world, is played masterfully by Wright, who at moments makes one think he really is off his rocker.

Assassins ends with all of the actors together in the infamous Dallas school book depository, meeting Lee Harvey Oswald, doing everything in their power to tempt him to share their collective fate.

But what is that fate? As Sondheim details wonderfully, it is something akin to a being an uniquely American loser. But more specifically, the ineffectual and bitter people who are never willing to examine the failures in their own life before lashing out at another. By casting John Wilkes Booth as the ringleader, he illustrates a current of misanthropy and self-hatred fed by a Faustian pact between Booth and the others, wherein their absolute beliefs about themselves and society can only be reinforced by more assassins joining their ranks, giving their infamous status a sense of group camaraderie.

Ultimately, Assassins is an intellectualized farce—and, when it first premiered in 1990, it stretched the definition of what makes a musical. The good news is that the Los Altos Stage Company has taken an intricate, heady production and given full clarity to the ideas expressed—without sacrificing any element of the production. Just a month after John Hinckley Jr. was released from prison, Assassins is more timely than ever.

Thru Sep 25, 8pm, $18-$30
Los Altos Stage Company

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