It is a musical, after all, about some of the baddest bad guys in American history: Nine men and women who wanted to kill the president of the United States.
In a new production at the Modern Theater Coeur d’Alene, our assassins, successful or otherwise, meet in a hellish carnival, where the Proprietor (Joseph Hall) hands each one a handgun. Narrating the show is the Balladeer (Brendan Brady).
The show’s second number, “The Ballad of Booth,” tells the story of the “pioneer,” John Wilkes Booth, the first person to kill a sitting president. Daniel Bell, memorable as Javert in “Les Miserables” on that same stage last year, really shines in the role. He has a lovely singing voice and is able to bring the gravitas required to the role.
Actually, the cast of killers is sound across the board.
Jeremy Whittington plays would-be Nixon assassin Sam Byck like a demented Jackie Gleason in a dirty Santa Claus suit. Matthew Gerard plays Charles Guiteau, President James Garfield’s killer, with a huge grin and more than a hint of crazy. Jesse Hampsch’s Leon Czolgosz is a determined and dour anarchist who sees it as his duty to kill President William McKinley. Glenn Bentley’s Guiseppe Zangara is driven mad by stomach pain, a pain that doesn’t end when he shoots at President-elect Franklin Roosevelt and fatally hits the mayor of Chicago. Shawn Hunt’s John Hinckley is a nice-looking young man whose obsession with Jodie Foster drives him to shoot President Ronald Reagan. Two women took shots at President Gerald Ford, and missed: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Aubree Peterson) and Sara Jane Moore (Christina Coty). Peterson makes Manson Family member Fromme a deranged flower child, while Coty’s Moore is, well, the kind of mother who takes her kid to an assassination attempt.
If you notice one missing from the above paragraph, you’re correct. Lee Harvey Oswald is not among the listed characters in the program. So when he shows up in Act II, it’s a surprise. And a powerful one. Oswald in this scenario is talked into murdering President John F. Kennedy by the ghost of Booth, who literally puts the rifle in the young man’s hands. Soon all the assassins are onstage, egging on Oswald to take his place in history. “Fifty years from now, they’ll still be arguing about the grassy knoll,” Booth urges.
Oswald takes aim out the window of the Texas School Book Depository. A shot rings out. Behind Oswald, the famous Zapruder film plays, showing the damage Oswald’s bullet wrought on a president, a family and a nation.
“Assassins” is a musical that’s easy to admire, if not enjoy. After all, it’s a Sondheim show, and there are few around who write music for the stage as well as Stephen Sondheim. But it’s hardly a fun night at the theater, despite some funny bits. Still, the Modern production, directed by local theater veteran Abbey Crawford, is top-notch, from the sets and costumes to the choreography and performances.