The setting looks like a ghostly, abandoned carnival with a rickety roller coaster rising to the stars and a disturbing motto blazing in lights: "Shoot! Win!"
It's an appropriate sideshow sentiment for "Assassins," the stunning, gut-punch of a musical that the Roundabout Theatre Company has had the good sense to revive at Studio 54.
Thirteen years ago in its initial incarnation at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, this creation of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman was an extraordinary, unsettling piece of musical theater. It still is today, and in director Joe Mantello's perceptive and precise production, the show seems even darker and more malevolent.
The times may be riper for the musical, too. The world has grown a lot more unsafe, for one thing. And the quest for celebrity is fiercer: Just what will people do for a bit of notoriety? The machinations of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" or even Roxie Hart in "Chicago" are like child's play compared to the stuff found here.
In "Assassins," Weidman and Sondheim present a cavalcade of misfits, the desperate and the disaffected who killed or tried to kill the president of the United States.
These individuals - from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley – each get a moment, musical or otherwise, to explain why they did what they did. Weidman's book follows a revuelike format as it travels along a disjointed path of American history.
The proprietor of a shooting gallery (a fierce-looking Marc Kudisch with shaved head, gold teeth and tattoos) invites these misfits to shoot a president - if that's what they want to do. "Everybody's got the right to happy," he croons. It's one of Sondheim's more direct lyrics, wedded to a jaunty, hypnotic tune.
The composer's score is one of his most accessible, and despite its subject matter, melodically appealing. It's a celebration of musical Americana - from spirituals to soft rock, from John Philip Sousa to Woody Guthrie - often with a particular, perverse Sondheim twist.
Changes in the show since its premiere in 1991 have been minor. "Something Just Broke," an affecting song from the London production, has been added. In it, people recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard that John Kennedy was shot.
The creators have also done something ingenious with the character of the Balladeer, until now used mostly as a device to link the various brief sketches.
At Studio 54, it's the Balladeer, played with quiet determination by Neil Patrick Harris, who morphs into a reluctant Lee Harvey Oswald. In the original production, he was played by another actor.
It's Oswald who must be convinced by the other assassins that he needs to kill Kennedy if he wants to gain immortality, and their argument becomes the musical's most chilling moment.
For a show with such grim scenes, there is a surprising amount of humor in the evening. Much of that is supplied by the characters of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Mary Catherine Garrison) and Sara Jane Moore (Becky Ann Baker), linked by Weidman because of their separate, inept attempts to kill Gerald Ford.
Mario Cantone babbles hilariously as the desperately neurotic Samuel Byck who wanted to crash a plane into the White House and get Richard Nixon.
Denis O'Hare gives a twitchy, hyperactive performance as Charles Guiteau, literally cakewalking his way to the scaffold to pay for his assassination of James Garfield.
And we haven't even gotten to Alexander Gemignani as the shyly pathetic Hinckley or the dynamic Michael Cerveris, who, as Booth, joins with three others to sing the slyly seductive "Gun Song." It's this quartet that urges would-be assassins to move their little trigger finger and "you can change the world."
This sense of empowerment pervades "Assassins," turning these surefire losers into winners, at least in their own minds. And Weidman and Sondheim have perfectly captured their dark deeds.
Imagine a bouquet composed of deadly nightshade, Venus's-flytrap and other noxious blooms.
The beauty of these flowers would be offset by your awareness that they are lethal.
This gives you a rough idea of "Assassins," whose florist is Stephen Sondheim. With librettist John Weidman, he has fashioned a musical fantasia about presidential assassins.
The show is set in a gaudy carnival shooting gallery whose proprietor invites us to "c'mere and shoot a President."
In the musical collage that follows, we see, among other things, John Wilkes Booth persuading Lee Harvey Oswald to aim his rifle at the presidential motorcade, rather than himself.
Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme, the two would-be assassins of Gerald Ford, have a dizzy conversation.
And Charles Guiteau, James Garfield's assassin, sings a happy hymn on his way to his hanging.
Such grotesque goings-on are depicted in a series of musical styles, ranging from parodies of '50s pop and an old-fashioned hymn to a few complex numbers that are pure Sondheim. The overall premise is that assassins represent the dark side of the American psyche, which can find fulfillment only in attacking conventional values.
Attributing political intentions to psychopaths may give them more credit for more intellectual acumen than they deserve, but the result is a show both repellent and riveting, an esthetic objective Sondheim has pursued since his 1979 masterpiece "Sweeney Todd."
The Roundabout's stunning revival, directed by Joe Mantello, is far more elaborate than the 1991 original workshop production at the then-tiny Playwrights Horizons Theater. Robert Brill's set, which fills the huge Studio 54 stage, conveys both a bare-bones carnival and, at one point, the scaffold for the hanging. The lighting makes the set a macabre, tawdry character in the grisly proceedings.
The cast is spectacular, starting with the commanding Marc Kudisch as the proprietor and the eerily suave Michael Cerveris as Booth. James Barbour, who plays William McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz, turns a disquieting song about guns into a powerful aria.
Mario Cantone is savagely funny as the unhinged Samuel Byck, who tried to kill Nixon. Neil Patrick Harris makes a beautifully unsettling transition from a bland balladeer to Oswald.
Mary Catherine Garrison and Becky Ann Baker are wonderfully daffy as Ford's assailants, while Alexander Gemigniani has an off-kilter charm as John Hinckley. Denis O'Hare is a little too cute as the ditsy Guiteau.
Under Paul Gemigniani's musical direction, the score, especially "Something Just Broke," a number added for the 1992 London production, comes across with extraordinary power.
"Assassins" is Sondheim's wildest show. It is no less distasteful than it was a decade ago. But events have given us the psychic shock absorbers that help us - dare I say - enjoy it.
"Assassins," which got a spirited revival by the Roundabout Theater at Studio 54 last night, is said to be Stephen Sondheim's favorite among his musicals - but that doesn't make it among his best.
There's more ironic style here than theatrical substance, and the total effect is like a master marksman shooting blanks.
The musical is largely governed by John Weidman's book, which sets not merely the scenario but the tone of this musical revue, a survey of presidential mayhem.
Music and lyrics play a subsidiary role in this relentless saga of the shots that stopped a nation, from Wilkes Booth and Lincoln to Oswald and Kennedy.
One can see how Sondheim was attracted to the theme. He often likes to explore the darker side of the moon: "Anyone Can Whistle," "Passion" and "Sweeney Todd" dealt brilliantly with madness in all its degrees.
In "Assassins," Sondheim has come up with stylish, trenchant lyrics and music that is quintessentially American, right down to a couple of Sousa marches.
The scope of the play runs from the oddly jaunty with a band of sicko killers cheerfully singing, "Everybody's got the right to be happy. . . everybody's got the right to their dream," to a beautifully plaintive duet for John Hinckley and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, expressing their twisted love for Jodie Foster and Charles Manson.
This hour-and-45-minute intermissionless musical has only nine Sondheim numbers - revealing how much Weidman's simplistic book drives the action with its proposition that these assassins had a motive as plain as the fabric on a psychiatrist's couch.
Seems everyone in this litany of presidential killers and would-be killers is a loser. Surprise!
However deranged they were, their stories were more complicated than "Assassins" lets on as it depicts the Great American Dream's occasional descent into the Great American Nightmare as a satirical sideshow.
Despite the presence of a Proprietor and a Balladeer, nothing connects the stories except the constant and contrived setting of a shooting gallery.
This symbolic fairground is submerged in history, starting with some haunting calliope music and a sardonic barker, offering a chance at dark fame and dusty immortality with the suggestion: "Feelin' blue. . . C'mere and kill a president."
The show's flaws were apparent back in 1991, when it was first produced by off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. But Sondheim's score was there (minus one song that was added later), and even then -with just three musicians and a synthesizer - "Assassins" made a fascinating cast album.
This revival not only has an orchestra, but full staging - a magnificent staircase-sweeping design by Robert Brill, clever costuming by Susan Hilferty, and tensely dramatic lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhau. It's all been deftly and dazzlingly directed by Joe Mantello.
By nature an ensemble piece, it's been well-cast, and though I missed Victor Garber as the original Booth, the present crew is very good indeed.
I was particularly taken by the merry craziness of Denis O'Hare as Charles Guiteau (who was hanged for killing James Garfield), the Brechtian presence of Marc Kudisch as the fairground Proprietor, and the strong voice and pervasively sinister charm of Neil Patrick Harris as both the Balladeer and the oddly innocent Lee Harvey Oswald.
Also compelling was the non-stop nuttiness of Mario Cantone as Samuel Byck - the man who, 30 years ago, tried to hijack a jet and fly it in into the White House to kill Richard Nixon, and, tragically, got far too little attention for his attempt.
If only the CIA went to off-Broadway musicals . . .
This is what they always wanted, isn't it? A clear shot at the big time, where people would have to pay attention to them? More than a decade after they first surfaced to critical shudders and head-scratching, the unhappy have-nots of ''Assassins'' -- the glitteringly dark musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman about Americans who dream of killing their country's presidents -- have finally made it to Broadway.
So can these desperate people, whose greatest fear is being thought small, actually expand in proportion to the lavish production they have been given? Oh boy, can they ever.
Accompanied by a sumptuously full orchestra, and portrayed by a cast that finds the magnetism in rage and resentment, the frightening title characters of ''Assassins'' are restating their demand to be noticed in the Roundabout Theater Company production, which opened last night at Studio 54. And under Joe Mantello's direction, they are doing so with an eloquence and an intensity that makes a compelling case for a misunderstood show.
Of course, a work that sets to song the thoughts of John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley, among others, is still bound to give some theatergoers the creeps. There are reasons this somber funhouse of a show, first staged at the intimate Playwrights Horizons in 1991, has taken so long to arrive on Broadway.
Yet let it be stated that ''Assassins'' does not celebrate its homicidal subjects. Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Weidman are simply posing a question that arises in many people's minds when they read accounts of shocking, irrational crimes: ''Why would someone do that?''
Mr. Sondheim had already proved himself qualified to pursue such a question in ''Sweeney Todd,'' the 1979 musical about a murderous Victorian barber. The show asked audiences to enter, if they dared, a mind polluted by revenge fever. To my knowledge, no one left ''Sweeney Todd'' with the ambition of becoming a cannibal barber. And I can't imagine that anyone who sees ''Assassins'' will have the slightest desire to emulate its characters. But leave it to Mr. Sondheim to identify certain emotional poisons -- feelings of dispossession and disillusion, of failure and alienation -- as chemicals that exist in small quantities in every human body.
Mr. Sondheim magnifies those elements to monstrous proportions, and your being able to recognize them as familiar makes their presence in these looming, distorted forms all the scarier. What's more, ''Assassins'' has also acquired a new point of connection with contemporary culture.
I'm referring to that imaginary constitutional amendment to which these antiheroes subscribe so ardently: the right to be famous. Americans will happily humiliate themselves and torment others to guarantee a spot on Jerry Springer or ''Survivor.'' And the same glazed, rabidly hungry look that often beams from participants on such shows can be glimpsed in the eyes of the performers here. They range from the epochally famous, like Booth (richly played by Michael Cerveris), to the nearly forgotten, like Charles Guiteau (Denis O'Hare), the megalomaniac who shot President James Garfield.
Though Mr. Weidman's book still veers a bit shakily between blackout-sketch glibness and oratorical punditry, this production has a rich cohesiveness that overrides such discrepancies. And while the assassins' motives range from revolutionary idealism to a dyspeptic stomach, this version emphasizes their shared belief in their potential magnificence as they gather in a funhouse shooting gallery outside of time. As conceived by Mr. Mantello and his brilliant design team, their environment matches their aspirations in ways smaller productions could not.
Robert Brill's basic set, a sprawling tower of wooden scaffolding that evokes the underbelly of the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island, is a bleak, desolate construction that takes on beckoning, lurid life. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, the lighting designers, have created a painterly tour de force, with glaring walls of color and deep pockets of shadows.
This look of tawdry splendor, of a gimcrack version of eternity, sets the ideal tone for the fractured, time-warping narratives that follow, presided over by a gold-toothed, spiel-chanting carnival Proprietor (the excellent Marc Kudisch). The Proprietor lures the assassins with promises of glory to the discontented. But what follows is also overseen by Booth, who as the man who killed Lincoln is the prototype for the others, and a Balladeer (Neil Patrick Harris).
The Balladeer sings a folky, cheery, deflating counterpoint to the self-aggrandizing accounts of the assassins. Mr. Harris, best known as television's ''Doogie Howser,'' here suggests the older brother from an Eisenhower-era sitcom. Like his appearance, his pleasant voice exudes an anonymous, scrubbed wholesomeness, which winds up working beautifully for the Balladeer's climactic metamorphosis when he morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald.
Mr. Mantello brings remarkable continuity to this seemingly fragmented show. As the various assassins return to the scenes of their crimes, the Proprietor and Booth often materialize by their sides, seeming to massage them into active existence. It is the show's thesis that assassination has become its own disturbing cultural tradition in this country, that each of the characters is made of a cloth first spun by Booth.
Mr. Sondheim's astonishing score takes staples of American folk, pop and ceremonial music and turns them inside out. The sly distortions of familiar musical tropes -- whether ''Hail to the Chief'' or a barbershop quartet -- approximate the skewed ways in which these characters hear everyday melodies. Listening, as sweet notes slide into dissonance, you may feel as if your own brain has slipped off the rails.
And how splendidly the orchestra, conducted by Paul Gemignani (with orchestrations by Michael Starobin), realizes this sensibility. The musicians are in loges on either side of the stage, and the sound becomes its own environment, at one with the darkness that enfolds the audience. Some songs assume entirely new dimensions here. In ''Unworthy of Your Love,'' the bizarrely plaintive duet sung by Hinckley (Alexander Gemignani) and Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme (Mary Catherine Garrison), what begins as a coffee-house-style ballad expands into the radiant lovelorn brassiness of a Burt Bacharach number.
No cast member disappoints, and it's hard to single one out. But I was especially taken with the brooding, sonorous sobriety of James Barbour as Leon Czolgosz, the Polish factory worker who shot William McKinley, and by Mario Cantone, dizzily strident as the logorrheic Samuel Byck, who planned to crash a plane into Richard Nixon's White House. (The wonderfully wry Becky Ann Baker, as Sara Jane Moore, and Jeffrey Kuhn, as Giuseppe Zangara, round out the complement of assassins.)
But Mr. O'Hare delivers the show's essential tour de force as Guiteau, dancing up the stars to the gallows. As he alternates between snatches of a gospel and a peppy vaudeville number, he reflects the troubled, divided selves of everyone onstage. (Jonathan Butterell did the seamless musical staging.) It also reminds you that no composer writes a nervous breakdown like Mr. Sondheim.
The text doesn't match the intricacy of the songs. Mr. Weidman's rhythmic patterning of repeated phrases is often terrific. But there are moments of hackneyed ponderousness (as when Booth invokes the spirit of Willy Loman from ''Death of a Salesman'') and some gags, like someone impersonating a clumsy Gerald Ford, better suited to ''Saturday Night Live.''
Still, these are forgivable distractions from what is, all told, a very impressive achievement. For those of you who know only the Playwrights Horizons version, the score now includes ''Something Just Broke,'' which was introduced in the London production at the Donmar Warehouse in 1992. It is performed by members of the ensemble who appear in ghostly tableaus throughout the evening, looking like the prosperous folk of E. L. Doctorow's ''Ragtime.''
''Something Just Broke'' is a chilling acknowledgment that assassins do have an impact, that by pulling a trigger an individual can upset the course of history. The grief-numbed singers are, of course, the people with whom you instinctively identify. But in their light-colored, ethereal costumes by Susan Hilferty, they seem curiously unsubstantial.
They inhabit an orderly dream of a world to which the show's main characters can never gain entry. It's the assassins who are the dominating, vivid presence. For two haunted, exquisitely wrought hours, they are allowed to present their own version of reality. It is by no means a comfortable place. But when your guides are as skilled as the creators of this revival, there is catharsis and even exhilaration in working your way through this tarnished looking-glass land.
When Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins" was not well received Off-Broadway in 1991, some blamed its failure on bad timing. After all, went the argument, who can enjoy a musical revue about people killing American presidents while the country's fighting the Gulf War?
One millennium, a national catastrophe and another Gulf war later, anyone who would have been offended by the subject may well be ballistic now. For those of us who had merely found "Assassins" to be fuzzy-headed and pseudo-serious, however, the Roundabout Theatre Company's long-delayed Broadway revival more than justifies another look.
As social commentary, the show still doesn't add up to much. John Weidman's book still does not build to the revelations that Sondheim's shrewd Americana pastiche keeps promising. But there is a difference - besides 13 intervening years - in the show that opened last night in the former home of "Cabaret" at Studio 54. Where the original was a chamber musical in the tiny Playwrights Horizons with just three musicians and an uncertain tone, this full production is dynamite.
Joe Mantello, already represented on Broadway this season with the massively overproduced "Wicked," is blissfully in charge of all the show's prickly macabre and playful contradictions. Sondheim specialist Paul Gemignani conducts a split orchestra that hovers above both sides of the vaulting contraption of a stage, designed by Robert Brill to suggest the vast underbelly of an old-time wooden roller coaster. Lest we underestimate the sick-joke sensibility that lurks in the cracks between the 18 dreamlike historical scenes, the sensitive among us should know that a Jodie Foster rag doll is one of the prizes hanging high above the fairground shooting gallery.
We are, after all, sitting at nightclub tables watching a carny barker (Marc Kudisch) hawk - to a jaunty two-step with calliope backdrop - "Hey, pal, feelin' blue? Don't know what to do? ... C'mere and kill a president." There is a circle of stalls, each containing a cutout of a dark figure with a bull's-eye target on him. The signs, spelled out in party lights, promise, "Hit the President! Win a Prize!"
For the next two hours, without intermission, we are among the bystanders of a bizarre but limited musical version of our bizarre but inescapable history. The familiar and unfamiliar tales begin with John Wilkes Booth - treated here as a pioneer - in 1865 and include Lee Harvey Oswald, goaded into action in 1963 by Booth and seven others who killed or tried to kill presidents. As they urge Oswald to "connect to us" in "Another National Anthem" - "for those who never win" - the effect is almost laughable, like a support group for lone gunmen.
Weidman never touches the tough daring of the subject. And the lineup of individual pathologies seems almost innocent in a time when assassinations are more often ordered by political agenda. Where Weidman and, at times, even Sondheim lose their nerve, Mantello finds the images to enhance the intentional, awful inappropriateness of the subject. He may even step over a line by projecting the Zapruder film onto Oswald's T-shirt. We can argue about taste - and New Yorkers certainly will – but nobody can accuse the production of wimping out.
The terrific cast is in synch with Mantello's concept and the irony of a show that has killers sing, over and over, the American mantra, "Everybody's got the sight to their dreams." Kudisch, proprietor of the target game, has the deep, sleazy appeal to match the glint of his silver tooth. Michael Cerveris gives Booth the preening zealousness of an actor who believes Lincoln put "blood on the clover" but just might be upset about bad reviews.
Denis O'Hare has a crazed, almost lovable quality as Charles Guiteau, the delusional evangelist who shot James Garfield because he wouldn't make him ambassador to France. O'Hare somehow performs Guiteau's gallows song while climbing up and down the steep staircase backwards.
Alexander Gemignani, lovely as a hapless John Hinckley, and Mary Catherine Garrison, waiflike as Squeaky Fromme, sing a demented, sweet pop ballad, "Unworthy of Your Love," to Jodie and Charles Manson. Mario Cantone, as Samuel Byck, is aptly out of control delivering what is the most shattering threat today: He vows to crash a 747 into the White House and "incinerate Dick Nixon."
Best of all, there is Neil Patrick Harris as both Oswald and as the easygoing balladeer who connects whatever tissue can be connected in cheerful country ballads and a straightforward likability. The creepiest, most stirring songs include a loving tribute, a lilting waltz, to guns: "All you have to do is/move your little finger. ..." Toward the end, there is a new song from the London production, "Something Just Broke," meant to wrench us back from the subversive entertainment and remind us of the repercussions. It is too little, too late - like slapping a frown button on a smile.
At long last, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
Assassins bowed off-Broadway in 1991, right after the first Gulf War erupted - not an opportune time to unveil a musical focusing on murderers and would-be murderers of U.S. presidents. A decade later, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's star-crossed baby was finally ready for Broadway. Then came Sept. 11 ... and the war in Afghanistan and troubles in Iraq. That's to say nothing of the crackdown on controversial creative expression following a certain pop star's wardrobe malfunction.
Yet at press time, the Roundabout Theatre Company's Assassins (* * * out of four) was set to open Thursday, in all its squalid splendor, at Studio 54.
Mind you, even the most ardent jingoist would be hard-pressed to argue that Sondheim's songs or Weidman's libretto seek to glorify, or justify, the actions of Assassins' characters. Each member of this rogues' gallery is patently unsavory and at least a few bricks short of a full load.
The show addresses the social factors that can help push such unstable, disenfranchised types over the edge, but never in a way that asks us to blame the victims - who, we're reminded, don't just include targeted national leaders. In the moving Something Just Broke, we experience John F. Kennedy's brutal death through the eyes of everyday people.
The energy, though, is more often manic than mournful. Set designer Robert Brill presents a gaudy, gory carnival where the freaks are customers rather than attractions. "Everybody's got the right to their dreams," sings a proprietor, setting an ironic tone. But there also is intense sorrow and longing in Sondheim's lyrics. His melodies, too, soar with an unsentimental warmth, reminding us that anyone who contends you can't hum this guy's tunes is either musically challenged or just plain lazy.
Weidman's book, sadly, is less impressive. There are clever and insightful touches, but more poignant moments are marred by a talky earnestness that seems at odds with Sondheim's sophistication and bite.
Director Joe Mantello and his gifted ensemble do manage to mine every morsel of wit and pain. Alexander Gemignani and James Barbour play John Hinckley Jr. and Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley's assassin) with a delicate and utterly convincing pathos. Neil Patrick Harris is similarly affecting as Lee Harvey Oswald, who in a fantastic scene is prodded by John Wilkes Booth. "You want what everybody wants ... to be in other people's thoughts," Lincoln's killer tells Kennedy's killer.
At a time when reality TV and media sensationalism are blurring the line between fame and notoriety, it's one of several observations that makes Assassins more topical today than its creators might have predicted – or hoped it would be.
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.