Ongoing allure of Sondheim’s ‘Assassins’

Courtesy PhotoBad guys: Steven Hess

They all had their reasons. Charles Guiteau wanted to be ambassador to France. John Hinckley hoped to impress actress Jodie Foster. And John Wilkes Booth was pushed over the edge by bad reviews.

In “Assassins,” the madmen, sad sacks and wingnuts who have stepped out of the crowd to kill — or attempt to kill — U.S. presidents finally get their say.

The new Shotgun Players production of Stephen Sondheim’s provocative, darkly satirical Tony Award-winning musical creates a rogues’ gallery of historical shooters.

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Susannah Martin’s production is staged as a vintage carnival sideshow. As it begins, the Proprietor (a wily Jeff Garrett) issues warnings — that gunshots will be heard, and that audience members should “leave behind any preconceived notions.”

Over the next 100 minutes (without intermission) we meet Booth (a hyper Galen Murphy-Hoffman), Garfield killer Guiteau (a loopy Steven Hess), McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz (a fiery Dan Saski) and Guiseppe Zangara (a distressed Aleph Ayin), who fired at Franklin Delano Roosevelt and hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak.

Some of them spew undiluted rage (Ryan Drummond, as would-be Nixon killer Sam Byck); others are simply pathetic (Danny Cozart as Hinckley, who croons a love song to Foster.)

Sondheim’s songs — a wonderful mix of patter, patriotism and showbiz — and the musical’s book (by John Weidman), wring some horrifyingly funny moments from history.

Watching spaced-out Sara Jane Moore (Rebecca Castelli) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Cody Metzger) reminisce about Charles Manson hits just the right note of absurd improbability.

Sondheim lets us laugh at the insanity, but the songs — played by an assured eight-piece ensemble under music director David Moschler — suggest that these assassins were motivated by a skewed version of the American dream.

“Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” they sing, even as pulling the trigger leads them to the gallows.

It also suggests that lone gunmen don’t act alone. In the show’s chilling coda, the cast gathers around Lee Harvey Oswald (Kevin Singer), urging him to join their ranks.

Martin’s production isn’t ideal. A few of the singers are overmatched by Sondheim’s challenging vocal writing. On opening night, the amplified sound was harsh and muddy.

But “Assassins” still exerts a dreadful allure. As one of its songs observes, the events portrayed are grisly. But attention must be paid.

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