Actors prepare darkly comic 'Assassins'

Many adjectives could be used to describe Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins,” coming in July to the CAST Performing Arts Center, but “lightweight” and “innocuous” are not among them.

Director Mark Steighner is moving his cast through the final phase of rehearsals and predicted that local audiences will find the 1991 off-Broadway musical revue darkly entertaining and emotionally riveting when it opens on July 12.

“Assassins” juxtaposes the stories of nine political assassins and has been creating controversy ever since it opened during the early days of the Gulf War.

Although it seems like an unlikely topic for a musical, Steighner said that “Assassins” manages to be both entertaining and thought provoking. Composer/lyricist Sondheim and book writer John Weidman introduce audiences to well known historical figures such as John Wilkes Booth, John Hinkley and Lee Harvey Oswald, and lesser known political assassins like Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated William McKinley) and Charles Guiteau (who assassinated James Garfield). The authors blend the assassins’ stories into a musical pastiche that illuminates the personal motivations of the killers as well as asking some pointed questions about American culture and politics.

Steighner explained, “The musical takes the position that although these individuals committed acts of violence and were dangerous criminals, their actions more often than not motivated by simultaneous feelings of empowerment and impotence. “Their’ America promised them fame and fortune, but denied them the means to achieve it.”

A Broadway revival of “Assassins” was postponed by the events of Sept. 11, and indeed, the musical has often incited comments about the show’s seemingly unpatriotic theme.

“Whether the show is ’unpatriotic’ will be for audiences to decide,” Steighner said, “but it should be remembered that many of the assassins were proudly American and considered themselves patriots. Booth thought that he could save the country by assassinating Lincoln and Sam Byck was going to drop a 747 into Nixon’s White House because the government had lost interest in the ’average’ American.”

While “Assassins” may sound a bit like a history lesson disguised as a musical, Steighner said that “the show is first and foremost a study of these characters and is, essentially, a musical comedy revue. It is often very funny and mostly historically accurate, but what really comes through are the personalities of these nine people.”

Steighner said that ever since seeing the show in 1991, he has been hoping to direct a local production of the show. Putting together a cast that could handle the complexities of the Sondheim score as well as the subtleties of characterization was not easy. Included in the cast are Greg Gilbertson, Jonpaul McClellan, Alison Fitts, Ky Fifer, Richard Parker, Sergio Fossa, Keith DeHart, Erik Steighner, Brian Merz and Ashly Will.

The musical opens July 12 and runs Friday and Saturday nights through August 3. Steighner said that due to the language and content of the musical it is not suitable for children or young teens. There will be post-show discussions on Saturday nights for any audience members wishing to explore their ideas and reactions to the show.

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