Ken Harrison 8:30 a.m., Sept. 22
Assassins at Cygnet Theatre
When Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman wrote their musical collage about presidential assassins, they wanted it to be as audacious as possible. But, Sondheim wrote, "audacious is an inch away from smartass." Assassins is that too.
The musical links nine people who attempted to kill a president and asks why. Weidman, a writer I respect, says: "we live in a country whose most cherished national myths...encourage us to believe that in America our dreams not only can come true, but should come true, and if they don't someone or something is to blame."
Assassins flips musicals upside-down. Sondheim wrote familiar song forms: a march ("How I Saved the President"), a C&W tune (the Ballad of Booth"), a barbershop quartet ("Gun Song"), and a gorgeous ballad ("Unworthy of Your Love"). If you just heard the music you'd be in familiar, even safe, territory.
But "Unworthy"'s a duet sung by John Hinckley, Jr. (to Jodie Foster) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (to Charles Manson). The lyrics run dead counter to the music.
The songs coalesce in "Another National Anthem," sung by "those who never win" and "the ones who might have been."
The musical wants us to understand the historical figures. But it also belittles them. Lincoln died because John Wilkes Booth got bad reviews? John Hinckley, Jr., takes potshots at a portrait of Ronald Reagan - which keeps popping back up - in a farcical sequence. Other inept assassins Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore take comical poundings.
Assassins becomes smartass when it feels a need to entertain first and foremost.
Cygnet Theatre honors the audacity. Directed by Sean Murray the production has an appropriately edgy, spontaneous flow - as unpredictable as the assassins' motives are predictable. Everyone in the cast gives a fully committed performance. Standouts include: Melinda Gilb (a daffy Sara Jane Moore); Geno Carr (at once serious and silly as Garfield-slayer Charles Guiteau); Jacob Caltrider (balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald); Jason Maddy's Leon Czolgosz.
Best of show: Manny Fernandes' Samuel Byck, whose urgent, thoroughly disillusioned voice articulates what the others fumble to say.
The design work's up to Cygnet's high standards, and they've found a young scenic designer, Ryan Grossheim of SDSU, who creates a carnival-like facade, gone to decadent seed, and who merits more assignments.