Leave it to an actor — John Wilkes Booth — to quote Willy Loman from "Death of a Salesman" in justifying presidential assassination.
"Attention must be paid," Lincoln killer Booth (Ben Beck) tells JFK killer Lee Harvey Oswald (Aaron Ellis), goading him to pick up a rifle in Dallas' Texas School Book Depository.
"Assassins," a dark musical in which killers and would-be killers of American presidents take center stage to justify themselves, is at the University of Nebraska at Omaha this weekend and next. It's a remarkable piece of theater for what it has to say about American history and the national psyche.
Set in a carnival shooting gallery complete with barker (Mike Palmreuter), the musical revue makes the point that we're connected to these characters. It's disturbing to relate to some of what they're spouting, suggesting they are — a little bit — us.
With a book by John Weidman and the inimitable Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics, the 1990 show has razor-sharp wit to spare, keeping its audience teetering between laughing (almost against its will at times) and getting caught short by sobering turns.
FDR shooter Giuseppe Zangara (Jack Landrie) is amusing, right up to the moment he dies in the electric chair.
The singing at a Wednesday preview was uneven, the acting less so. Character work, and director D. Scott Glasser's intelligent staging, made up for moments when Sondheim's tortuous score proved a bit much for student voices, though music director Paul Boesing has obviously rehearsed the cast well. Chorus numbers were particularly robust.
The way Weidman and Sondheim have these killers from different time periods interact with each other can be amusing and also enlightening.
"Unworthy of Your Love," a well-sung duet in which Ford shooter Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Maggie Wilken) and Reagan shooter John Hinckley (Aaron Wrigley) sing to photographs of Charles Manson and Jodie Foster, makes a point about hero worship crossing over to insanity.
Charles Guiteau (Michael Mecek, a robust baritone) and a balladeer (Ellis) waffle between an amusing shuffle and a gospel lament as Guiteau approaches the gallows for the slaying of President Garfield in "The Ballad of Guiteau."
Chris Thackray brings great emotion and poignancy to McKinley killer Leon Czolgosz, along with one of the show's best voices, as he leads into "The Gun Song." The number becomes a duet, then a trio and quartet as Booth, Guiteau and Ford shooter Sarah Jane Moore (Kim Kershner) blend in nice harmony.
Some of the night's funniest bits belong to Kershner, who plays Moore as a scatterbrain. She causes Fromme to come unglued when she brings her dog and pre-pubescent son along to the shooting.
Steve Hartman, as nut job Samuel Byck (who failed to kill Nixon), and Wrigley, as Hinckley, offer credible portrayals of mental illness, Byck as loud and irascible as Hinckley is quietly passive.
A personal favorite: Ellis as the balladeer, combining strong singing with a crowd-pleasing persona. He makes an impression early and sustains it all night.
Robbie Jones' spare set of canvas panels and rolling units, along with Steven L. Williams' lights, help keep pacing brisk. The show runs 1 hour and 50 minutes, without intermission. Expect both profanity and disturbing imagery in this adult entertainment.
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