Step right up, folks, and change your life in an instant! Does the pitch sound familiar? No, it's not the latest come-on for contestants on one of TV's ever-proliferating "reality" shows. It's the entrancing promise that lures the lost souls in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's "Assassins" to their own grisly dates with destiny.

Step right up, folks, and change your life in an instant! Everybody’s got a right to their dreams! Does the pitch sound familiar? No, it’s not the latest come-on for contestants on one of TV’s ever-proliferating “reality” shows, which promise to turn lonelyhearts into lovers, ugly ducklings into swans, grubby straight guys into alluring metrosexuals. It’s the entrancing promise that lures the lost souls in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins” to their own grisly dates with destiny.

“Exquisite” may be an odd word to use to describe a show that features a hanging and an electrocution, not to mention more gunfire than a whole season of Dick Wolf TV shows. “Scintillating” doesn’t seem quite right, either. But they come closest to capturing the essence of Broadway’s killer staging of Sondheim and Weidman’s fabulous freak show (pun irresistible).

Joe Mantello’s flawless production makes your skin crawl even as it seduces you — and should redeem a prime place for this disquieting musical in the canon of the American theater’s reigning master of the form.

Sondheim has always been an artist concerned more with clouds than silver linings. While most Broadway musicals are designed to disseminate the intoxicating feeling of dreams coming true, Sondheim prefers to explore the long moment after, when the prize so enthusiastically pursued turns out to be a shoddy piece of goods. “Assassins” is his most scabrous commentary yet on the poisoned chalice of romantic illusions.

The illusion in this musical’s sights is that sentimental favorite, the American dream. The barker who presides over the show, which is set in an eerie, phantom arcade, entices his customers with its allure in the rollicking opening number. In a voice as rich, dark and smooth as molasses, a tattooed Marc Kudisch exhorts his customers, a motley assortment of assassins and wannabe assassins, to vindicate their lives of disappointment with a single gunshot in his presidential shooting gallery.

“Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” he sings, “Don’t stay mad, life’s not as bad as it seems. If you keep your goal in sight, you can climb to any height. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

Those comforting, familiar platitudes entice from the shadows of Robert Brill’s haunting, dilapidated amusement-park set a sad collection of living footnotes from history books. A few are recognizable: The mousy fellow in an Army jacket we can peg as John Hinckley as soon as his eyes light up at the first glimpse of his coveted prize, a spooky Jodie Foster-in-“Taxi Driver” doll. But most need a few words of introduction, the poor things: Despite that barker’s assurances, infamy doesn’t have quite the shelf life of its sexier sister.

Singly or in groups, these strange creatures and their brothers and sisters in crime slither to centerstage and sing of the ideals that inspire them, the delusions that haunt them, the grievances that won’t let them go. They are embodied with entrancing passion and good (or bad) humor by a cast of uniformly terrific singing actors, who always manage to find at least a sliver of humanity in even the most outlandishly disturbed.

The goofy little fellow dressed in head-to-toe black is Charles Guiteau (Denis O’Hare), an oddball who unsuccessfully pursued several trades, then killed President Garfield when his expectations of an ambassadorship were not met. He trades career advice with Leon Czolgosz (James Barbour), an angry anarchist in threadbare woolens who shot President McKinley on behalf of “the good working people.”

The dreamy flower child with the nasal voice is Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Mary Catherine Garrison), the suburban girl whose infatuation with Charles Manson led her to take a shot at President Ford. Just a few weeks later, serial housewife and would-be radical Sara Jane Moore (Becky Ann Baker), depicted here as an addled bundle of insecurities in a polyester pantsuit, took another shot.

Weidman and Sondheim’s intention, executed precisely by the ripe performances on view here, is to resist classifying the assassins either as absolute nuts or ostensibly “normal” human beings who took a wrong turn or two. The clearly deranged have their moments of lucidity, and the idealists labor under the same primary delusion as their battier brethren — that a gunshot aimed at the country’s figurehead will solve the problems that haunt them.

Baker and Garrison, as Fromme and Moore, respectively, are a particularly hilarious sister act. Mario Cantone, seething shrilly as a sad sack who hopes to rant his way to celebrity by hijacking an airplane and bearing down on Richard Nixon, has a bitingly funny monologue excoriating politicians’ failed promises.

O’Hare ricochets entrancingly from giddy enthusiasm to God-fearing sobriety as he high-kicks his way to the scaffold as Guiteau. Michael Cerveris’ ardently sung John Wilkes Booth, celebrated as the pioneer among this macabre lot, has the restrained dignity of an aggrieved Southern gentleman.

But there really isn’t a single ineffective perf — Mantello’s production is as impeccably performed as it is designed. The lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, for example — floods of lurid carny reds and purples dappled with searing white spotlights and spooky shadows — is one of the signal artistic achievements of the Broadway season. In concert with Brill’s stark but wittily intricate sets and Susan Hilferty’s definitive costumes, it helps immeasurably to lend dramatic coloring to a show without a traditional narrative.

“Assassins” is, after all, a series of vignettes that end on the same note — a gunshot. And Sondheim’s score does not contain the kind of numbers that can be plucked out and served up in a cabaret, or even squeezed comfortably into yet another Sondheim revue.

That’s its strength: Rather than a standard musical-comedy score that draws variety from a show’s narrative progression, Sondheim’s writing for “Assassins” is an artfully conceived, cohesive whole, almost a single piece of music composed of theme and variations. It’s an oratorio that knits together more than a century of American musical styles, from marches and 19th-century folk ballads to ’70s pop, into a single tapestry.

Under Mantello’s fluid directorial hand, it merges smoothly into Weidman’s mordant, semi-satirical book, which, though probably his finest, is somewhat flawed by repetition. The musical’s animating idea — that the hyping of America’s can-do spirit sows dangerous feelings of inadequacy and resentment in the hearts of citizens who just can’t — is established early on. O’Hare’s adorably loony Guiteau elucidates it in its simplest terms when he raises a toast to the U.S. presidency: “An office which by its mere existence reassures us that the possibilities of life are limitless. An office the mere idea of which reproaches us when we fall short of being all that we can be.” An hour later, Booth is taunting Lee Harvey Oswald (the excellent Neil Patrick Harris) by mockingly referring to the idea of America as “The Land Where Any Kid Can Grow up to Be President.”

But if its ideas are limited, the show’s ingenuity in expressing them, at least in this exuberant production, is not. In any case, the observations about American culture that pervade “Assassins” seem more pertinent than ever a dozen-plus years after the musical’s creation. Americans still snatch up wholesale the notion that drives many of the show’s characters to their infamous acts — that fame alone can shore up their slippery sense of self. Hence the huddled masses yearning for a few minutes of national attention via the newfangled magic of “reality” television, which fetishizes competition, and celebrates the instant winner, the quick fix, the long shot — all of which are reverently sung of in “Assassins.”

And it’s not just the country’s disturbed and disappointed who labor under the delusion that the world’s wrongs can be righted by properly directed applications of gunfire. That idea seems to have a certain currency in the country’s upper echelons, too.

Assassins

Studio 54; 915 capacity; $91 top

Production

A Roundabout Theater Co. presentation of a musical in one act with book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Joe Mantello. Musical direction, Paul Gemignani; musical staging, Jonathan Butterell.

Creative

Sets, Robert Brill; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; production stage manager, William Joseph Barnes. Opened April 22, 2004. Reviewed April 18. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

Proprietor - Marc Kudisch Leon Czolgosz - James Barbour John Hinckley - Alexander Gemignani Charles Guiteau - Denis O'Hare Giuseppe Zangara - Jeffrey Kuhn Samuel Byck - Mario Cantone Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme - Mary Catherine Garrison Sara Jane Moore - Becky Ann Baker John Wilkes Booth - Michael Cerveris Balladeer, Lee Harvey Oswald - Neil Patrick Harris David Herold - Brandon Wardell Emma Goldman - Anne L. Nathan James Blaine, President Gerald Ford - James Clow President James Garfield - Merwin Foard Billy - Eamon Foley
With: Kendra Kassebaum.

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