West Coast Ensemble’s solid revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins” reinforces the value of scaling down a tuner usually staged on the lavish side. The 99-seat presentation necessarily shifts attention from the spectacular parade of American folly to the disturbed marchers within it. Though only about half of helmer Richard Israel’s president killers capture the requisite madness, that’s enough to prove poet Langston Hughes was right: A dream deferred doesn’t necessarily shrivel up like a raisin in the sun. Sometimes it explodes.
Librettist Weidman’s omnipresent but never overstated theme is what happens when people take too literally the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; or, as the serenely confident opening song puts it, “Everybody’s Got a Right to Their Dreams.”
When that promise is withheld from those convinced they’re entitled to it, the show suggests, something snaps — which, in the historical cases presented here, means a declaration of Hell to the Chief.
Dramatization of the assassin’s pathology deftly transcends space and time, as attempted Gerald Ford shooter “Squeaky” Fromme (Darrin Revitz) confronts Ronald Reagan shooter John Hinckley (David Nadeau), or John Wilkes Booth (Christopher Davis Carlisle) sinisterly encourages Lee Oswald (Shannon Stoeke). Israel skillfully shapes these vaudeville sketches for thematic vitality, bringing out the common bonds among all who decide their solution is aiming a weapon at a president.
Helmer also shows ingenuity in the choral sequences, notably as the assassins punctuate their allegiance to “Another National Anthem” — a darker one — with heavy boots pounding against the El Centro’s hollow floors.
Several of this revival’s nut jobs peer deeply into the heart of darkness. Stoeke’s normal, everyday Oswald stunningly transforms before our eyes into a national nightmare.
Revitz turns on a dime from leafy flower child to satanic Manson handmaiden, while Nadeau lets us glimpse a hideous blight within the schlub in a Members Only jacket. Larry Lederman’s hypnotic Leon Czolgosz (who dispatched William McKinley) compels attention even in absolute stillness, while Jim Holdridge’s Zangara (who took a shot at FDR) could power three electric chairs with the fire in his eyes.
If Steven Connor never gets past the likable-coot element in disappointed office-seeker Charles Guiteau, and Carlisle wears too much self-pity on his sleeve for the charismatic Booth, little damage is done to the show’s fabric. Ditto the distinct lack of mania in Beth Lane’s Sara Jane Moore or John O’Brien’s Sam Byck.
“Assassins” stops short of blaming America for its shakier citizens’ psychoses. Still, this unique musical morality play strongly suggests something may well be fundamentally broken in our system or character.
Stephen Gifford’s wooden floor and wall, with wittily spinning panels, readily suggest relevant locales from a Virginia barn to the Texas School Book Depository. Show could profitably rely less on heavy set pieces — a gallows, a car interior — causing awkward set changes at odds with staging’s predominant fluidity.