The Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins has had a difficult history–thanks in part to America’s own difficult history. When it premiered off-Broadway in 1990 in the ultra-patriotic Gulf War era, the show was considered too controversial by mainstream audiences. The planned 2001 revival was postponed for years due to the tragic events of September 11. With a few revisions, the play was revived in 2004 and finally earned the respect it deserved.
Interestingly, earning the respect they felt they deserved is a key point driving most of the characters in Assassins.
The show weaves the stories of these nine historic characters against the existential backdrop of a 19th century vaudevillian carnival. The characters interact and share their stories and disappointments as they are egged on by their murderous muses: the Proprietor (Stuart Hepler) and his assistant (Olivia Ross). The assistant, “American Dream Girl,” is a character created by this production’s director, Christopher J. Murphy. Ross portrays her with sly charm and elegance as she seduces the various loners and losers into acts of horrific violence.
Balancing out these two is the Balladeer (Evan Hart), who smugly demeans the assassins and their American dreams. He points out the flaw in their plans: they wish to change the world (or their own lives) for the better, but all they do is create chaos and pain for themselves and do nothing to further their causes. This makes the big reveal of Lee Harvey Oswald at the end of the show all the more chilling.
Murphy’s casting is top notch throughout. Hepler and Hart share the narrating duties with strong vocals and humor. Mason Hunter (John Wilkes Booth, the “pioneer” American presidential assassin) and Zane Sade (Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley) have gorgeous, rich voices which are matched by their dangerous intensity.
Brock Graham is heartbreaking as awkward loner John Hinckley Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan. Curtis Shaw is both funny and heartbreaking as Guiseppe Zangara, who blames Franklin Roosevelt for his chronic stomach problems. Todd Frymier plays Charles Giteau, who assassinated James Garfield, with a scary mixture of gleefully psychotic optimism and underlying rage. Jim Nelson reprises his role as Sam Byck, who planned to fly a jet into the White House to kill Pres. Richard Nixon, from the 1999 IPFW production. His portrayal is even funnier and more intense than it was 18 years ago, and his two monologues are a highlight of the show.
Melissa Shaw as Sarah Jane Moore and Morgan Spencer as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme also get some of the show’s biggest laughs as the only two female would-be assassins. Both women tried and failed to shoot Gerald Ford.
The show also includes a highly talented ensemble. “Bystanders” consist of Brad Davis, Kent Bixler, Nancy Laudeman (who also plays anarchist Emma Goldman), Sophia D’Virgilio, and Minelli Manoukian. They sing in several numbers, but they have “Something Just Broke” all to themselves, and they represent the shock felt all across the world after the most recent assassination. Keegan Combs, another bystander, also plays Sarah Jane Moore’s obnoxious son with excellent comic timing, especially for someone so young.
The production features a prerecorded orchestral track, unusual for Fort Wayne community theater, but a necessity due to space limitations. With a score as complex and difficult as this one, it is astonishing how seamlessly the sound, operated by Nathan Dwyer, integrated into the performance. It’s equally astonishing that the performers, led by musical director Ben Wedler, didn’t miss a single note or beat.
Murphy’s directorial attention to detail and historic accuracy add tremendously to the evening. Each gun-toting assassin’s weapon is unique to his or her character. The set design by Therrin Eber is somewhat reminiscent of the Hamilton set – wooden platforms and levels with lots of details and no inch of space or set piece without meaning and utility. The lighting design by Miriam Morgan and Luke Hollinger as well as a strategically placed video projection by Brock Eastom brilliantly give the production an eerie and sometimes breathtaking atmosphere.