'Assassins' review: Sondheim takes aim
Robert Hurwitt
Published 4:48 p.m., Sunday, October 7, 2012

The San Francisco Chronicle

Don't get me wrong, but the singing, dancing presidential killers of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's "Assassins" are looking pretty good at the Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage.

Not in the sense that you're led to condone what they've done or tried to do. But the unsettling 1990 musical is Sondheim working at the top of his composer-lyricist form, matched by Weidman's provocative vaudeville script. And Susannah Martin's taut, close-up staging, which opened Friday, captures much of the show's capacity to shock, amuse, beguile and astonish.

Not all, by any means. Martin could use a few stronger, more flexible voices in her cast, and musical director David Möschler's eight-piece band, though surprisingly deft, can't do full justice to the complexities of Sondheim's all-American score. But Martin's smart stagings and stripped-down approach make even the technical deficiencies enhance the story and theme.

"Assassins" is one of Sondheim's more compact musicals. Martin makes it more so by dispensing with the usual ensemble. Instead, the chorus and subsidiary characters are played by the same actors who embody nine of the men and women who've tried to assassinate a president of the United States - four of whom succeeded. The role switches do more than work like a charm. Their effect dovetails with Weidman's carnival-sideshow structure to reinforce the idea that we may not be as different from these people as we'd like to think.

Some, of course, are more famous than others. Silken-toned Galen Murphy-Hoffman cuts a would-be matinee idol-dapper figure as John Wilkes Booth, desperately trying to write a self-justifying manifesto for killing Lincoln. His song-battle with Kevin Singer's resonant Balladeer puts the show on firm footing and Booth's legacy in a provocative perspective. That pays off in the unsettling climax, when Singer becomes Lee Harvey Oswald.

Steven Hess poignantly sings and cakewalks to glory as Garfield's assassin, the shakily upbeat entrepreneur Charles Guiteau, in Erika Chong Shuch's brightly choreographed execution scene. Dan Saski is eerily empathetic as Leon Czolgosz, the hard-luck worker who shot McKinley.

Martin sharply shapes the comic-tragic juxtapositions to heighten the harrowing impact of the execution of Aleph Ayin's fervent Giuseppe Zangara (who tried to shoot Franklin Roosevelt) and the paranoid ramblings of would-be Nixon assassin Sam Byck (the impressive Ryan Drummond). Cody Metzger and Danny Cozart don't quite achieve the melodic riches of the Squeaky Fromme-John Hinckley duet "Unworthy of Your Love," Sondheim's loveliest and creepiest love song. But Metzger's Fromme and the golden-toned Rebecca Castelli's bumbling Sara Jane Moore capture the comedy of their botched attempts.

Martin keeps the action compact as Nina Ball's tawdry carousel set begins to resemble the cylinder of a pistol. The tension builds inexorably through Guiteau's death to a riveting climax with the ensemble "Something Just Broke" after the fatal day in Dallas.

The way Martin's assassins morph into a stunned populace underscores the musical's most disturbing theme. These people haven't been just aberrations. They're part of the fabric of our nation.

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