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Dark Horse rides the fine lines of Sondheim's 'Assassins'

Published March 5, 2013 10:47 am

Review • The thirst for fame, justice find their songs in a bumpy, but spirited, take on Sondheim's musical.
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People attend musical theater for a variety of reasons. Staring down the American dream with all its travails, disillusionments and arguments has never been first and foremost among them, though.

Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins" doesn't just stare down the American dream. It seduces it through song, serenades it through dark gestures and notions, then holds it at gunpoint for a thorough interrogation.

Most of us can laugh nervously through Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," if only because the gore is so slapstick over the top and the title character is sympathetically tragic. "Assassins," by contrast is based in history, recreating the lives and times of nine assassins and attempted assassins of American presidents. And in our post-Newtown political climate the lyrics to numbers such as "The Gun Song" sound more menacing and real than most of us care to admit.

Where most musicals ask nothing more from us than a great time, "Assassins" chills and challenges us. Little wonder that, compared to Sondheim's other works, it rarely finds a stage.

Dark Horse Company Theatre's production is worth the price of admission. The overall tempo of this short 1 hour and 45-minute musical drags in places under the direction of Anne Stewart Mark, and a respectable but lean pit orchestra. But it never betrays the disturbing purity of Sondheim's vision.

Perhaps the chief reason "Assassins" languishes with most audiences is that it feels more like a series of set pieces rather than a cohesive, forceful whole. Only with the arrival, at last, of the character playing Lee Harvey Oswald does it seem to culminate into a tangible narrative structure.

Dark Horse Company Theatre makes this final scene work well enough, thanks to marvelous performances long before it arrives. Actors Darla Davis, as Sarah Jane Moore, and Karli Lowry, as Lynette "Squeak" Fromme, create fine manic energy as they trade quips about the wonder of coincidence before plotting to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Allen Smith offers a poignant Leon Czolgosz, the laborer who killed President William McKinley because of his anarchist motivations and societal injustices. Czolgosz's romantic encounter with Emma Goldman, played by Marissa Poole, almost melts off the stage. "Your life made you beautiful and your suffering made you fine," Goldman tells Czolgosz.

Doug Irey as John Wilkes Booth was more problematic. While fiery enough in his portrayal, there seemed times Irey let Booth's Southern accent get the best of him in a character that requires volume and grace in equal measure.

Jesse Peery's delivery of Sam Byck quickly became a crowd favorite during the show's opening run at Rose Wagner. (It opened Valentine's Day at Ogden's Ziegfeld Theater.) Decades before 9/11, Byck originated the idea of hijacking a passenger plane and flying it into the White House—in this case, President Richard Nixon's—to satisfy his personal frustrations. Peery brought an explicit sense of fun to the role, but never so much that he lost sight of the character as he rattled off Byck's crazed litanies into a tape recorder.

Long after all the show's blanks have been fired and the cordite cleared from the theater air, there are lines from "Assassins" that can easily haunt the rest of your week, if not your life. The crazed manner in which it articulates even more crazed American psyches on their mad quest for attention, fame, or even something as basic as life's meaning isn't to everyone's taste. But as the "other national anthem for those who never win" this production is required theater for anyone who wants to understand our nation's next mass shooting spree, or even attempt on a President's life.

bfulton@sltrib.com

Twitter:@Artsalt

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'Assassins'

A fine rendition of a rarely performed Sondheim musical. While it sags in tempo at certain junctures, the cast plays it with verve and heart, and the permanent relevance of its themes alone make Dark Horse's "Assassins" worth the price of admission. One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

When • Through March 3. Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Where • Rose Wagner Thetare, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $17-$20. Phone 355-ARTS for tickets or visit http://www.darkhorsecompanytheatre.com for more information.

Running time • One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.