Shoot ’em up Sondheim

Hasn’t someone suggested that the key to getting kids to pay better attention in history class is to hit them with history’s seamier underside?

Give ’em the gossip. Sprinkle a slick narrative over juicy hard facts, and kids around the country will nod their heads knowingly the next time someone exclaims “Sic semper tyrannis!”

That’s what springs to mind upon seeing Custom Made Theatre Co.’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s controversial, yet on its way to being classic, dark musical “Assassins.” (It won a 2004 Tony Award for best musical revival.) Given the tiny size of the stage at the Off Market Theatre, Custom Made overcomes what could be a cumbersome situation (even simply moving props around seems difficult) admirably.

Director Brian Katz is up to the task of choreographing the show’s 11-member cast around a living room-sized stage. While some of the many transitions in the two-hour show are a little less than precise, it’s forgivable.

The actors are good, too. They bring the main characters — four U.S. presidential assassins and four attempted assassins — to life with vigor and passion.

Though the guns are fake, they’re not without effect.

When the ensemble takes aim en masse at the close-range audience, it’s impossible not to flinch. Sondheim’s original intent — the show opened off Broadway in 1990 — is not lost.

Kalon Thibodeaux, who plays Leon Czolgosz, the American-born assassin of President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., is among the standouts in the cast.

Not to ruin the fun, but Moore and Fromme didn’t try to murder Ford together; two attempts actually happened a couple of weeks apart. Still, that’s also what is kind of cool about this play. You leave wanting to get a handle of the facts, knowing a trip to Wikipedia is inevitable.

Those unfamiliar with “Assassins” should note that Sondheim (who wrote music and lyrics) and John Weidman (who wrote the book) take generous liberties in altering historical fact in the name of drama.

Still, despite his popularity, Sondheim is an acquired taste. Fans will be more than happy to take in this offbeat musical, and those on the fence will leave ambivalent.

Assassins

Presented by Custom Made Theatre Company

Where: Off-Market Theatre, 965 Mission St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; closes July 21

Tickets: $20 to $35

Contact: (800) 838-3006 or www.custommade.org

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