Presidential murderers (from left) Charles Guiteau (Scott Wilson), Leon Czolgosz (Jay Rittberger) and John Wilkes Booth (Ian Short) raise their voices and weapons in Assassins (photo by Dan Welsh) together are two awesome central performances.
You always remember where you were the first time you saw Assassins. I was in the Riffe Center’s Studio One, which looked a lot different than it does today. For his 1993 Players Theatre production, director Steven Anderson forced viewers to stare at each other from either side of the central stage. The idea was to underline the fact that the Stephen Sondheim musical is about us—Americans—and our violent history. It was a brilliant concept, but a look at the viewers across the way suggested that many of them didn’t know what to make of this provocative and darkly comic history lesson. And some (myself included) had trouble with its surreal “explanation” of President Kennedy’s assassination, a crime that remained controversial 30 years after the fact. So now it’s 50 years after JFK’s death, and his murder has largely been replaced by 9/11 as the most shocking event of modern history. In fact, political assassinations have generally given way to terrorism and mass shootings as the major sources of national paranoia. It’s in this atmosphere that Red Herring Productions brings the Sondheim musical back to Studio One. The change is a double-edged sword: It makes the musical seem less relevant, but it may give us enough emotional distance to finally appreciate its artistry and audacity. Both qualities come through in the production director John Dranschak and musical director Pam Welsh-Huggins have created, which is more traditional than its predecessor but just as polished. Holding it together are two awesome central performances. Ian Short is at first passionate as pioneer assassin John Wilkes Booth, then dangerously seductive as his spirit, who coaxes malcontents to follow in his bloody footsteps. When Giuseppe Zangara (Drew Eberly) complains that nothing can cure his chronic stomach ache, Booth asks coyly, “Have you considering shooting Franklin Roosevelt?” In the other pivotal role, Nick Lingnofski puts his fine voice to good use as the narrator-like Balladeer, then morphs into a surprisingly hesitant Lee Harvey Oswald for the controversial finale. Some would-be assassins serve as welcome comic relief. The broadest laughs are provided by Charles Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Kate Lingnofski) and her crooked-shooting cohort, Sara Jane Moore (Kim Garrison Hopcraft). Also hilarious, thanks to Todd Covert’s cranky delivery, is Samuel Byck, who is determined to exterminate Dick Nixon by flying an airliner into the White House. Likewise treated with little gravitas are deranged Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau (Scott Wilson) and the Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley (Christopher Storer). But McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz (Jay Rittberger) is accorded more sympathy, though the musical suggests his admiration for radical lecturer Emma Goldman (Danielle Mann) drives him as much as his class consciousness. Supplying the guns for all of these miscreants is the Proprietor (Scott Willis), whose strong presence is marred only by a shaky singing voice. In general, though, catchy tunes such as the ironic Everybody’s Got the Right and the pop lament Unworthy of Your Love are well served by the cast and the onstage band. Assassins may be less relevant in the post-9/11, post-Columbine era, but that’s no reason to miss it. It’s simply a reason to wish Sondheim would come up with a new musical that comments on the violent proclivities of 21st century America. Red Herring Productions will present Assassins at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Tickets are $20 in advance, “pay what you want” at the door. 614-723-9116 or