In an atmosphere where musicals like The Sound of Music and Seussical are the normal fare, only the nerviest community theaters tackle the harrowing, heart-breaking and blackly comic Stephen Sondheim masterpiece Assassins. But, on top of that, isn’t opening Assassins at the end of Fourth of July week what could optimistically be described as “pushing your luck”?
Geneva Underground Playhouse director Craig Gustafson of Lombard shrugs it off. “Anybody who will be offended by this show won’t see it no matter when we do it. The very idea of musicalizing the stories of people who have either assassinated or attempted to assassinate American presidents just strikes some people as Being Wrong. So let’s do it at a time when it’s appropriate to think about what it means to be an American.”
Played as a ghoulish vaudeville show, Assassins depicts the killers of Abraham Lincoln (John Wilkes Booth), James Garfield (Charles Guiteau), William McKinley (Leon Czolgosz) and John F. Kennedy (Lee Harvey Oswald), as well as the attempted-murderers of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Guiseppe Zangara), Richard Nixon (Sam Byck), Gerald Ford (Sara Jane Moore & Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme) and Ronald Reagan (John Hinckley). “People hear ‘musical’ and think that the assassins will be singing a cheery Disney-style opening number or high-kicking up and down the gallows, and… well, all right, yes. They do that,” says Gustafson. “But remember shows like Sweeney Todd or West Side Story. ‘Musical’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘sweetness and light’. This show has Sondheim’s greatest, most powerful and diversified score. It spans the range of American music styles from the 1860s to the present.”
Songs range from a post-Civil War cakewalk to a folk ballad to a Carpenters style 1970s ballad. “The ballad is a love duet sung by John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme; but they’re not singing to each other. He’s singing to Jodie Foster and she’s singing to Charles Manson. It’s beautiful, heartfelt and creepy as hell.” There is also an impassioned argument against assassination, sung by the Balladeer, who pops up throughout the show to sing ironic folk songs about the killers. This balances things like The Gun Song, where the assassins sing a love song about their guns – in barbershop harmony.
The cast includes Susan Able Barry (Carol Stream), Garrett Ard (Warrenville), Carrie L. Dabelow (Palatine), Patrick Daly (Naperville), Tairen M. Foster (Aurora), Shane Frantz (Bolingbrook), Zach Gibson (Lisle), Meredith Higgins (Chicago), Rod Kelly (Lombard), Aimee Kennedy (Aurora), Harold LeBoyer (Rolling Meadows), Sean Ogren (Villa Park), Jaime Sandoval (Oak Park), Dean Sasman (Buffalo Grove) and Lars Timpa (Wood Dale). Musical Director is Kathleen Dooley (Aurora). Produced by Elaine G. Castro (Bolingbrook).
“The show does not glorify assassination,” claims Gustafson. “It examines the subject. Librettist John Weidman desperately wants to know why these horrible things continually happen in America. Are these people all insane? As depicted in the show, yeah, some of them are clearly nuts. Others believe passionately that they are doing the right thing – even though they couldn’t be more wrong. I won’t give it away, but there’s a section sung by John Wilkes Booth where he eloquently and beautifully states his case for shooting Lincoln. And you’re getting sucked in by his passion, thinking, “Well, I could certainly understand why he did it…”, then he screams something so repulsive that you realize that you almost got sucked in by one of the worst monsters in history. And that’s the point. Evil isn’t always Darth Vader. It can be persuasive, beautiful, seductive – so we have to listen very carefully and use our brains rather than just our hearts.”
The show runs July 6-22 at Geneva Underground Playhouse, 524 W. State Street, Geneva, Illinois, 60134 (southeast corner of Sixth and State). Fridays and
Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00. Call (630) 677-1725 for reservations and information, or purchase tickets online at www.GUPTheatre.org. It is rated “R” for adult language and situations. Also, guns will be fired onstage.
Assassins is a horrifying, funny and shattering musical, available only in Geneva just after the Fourth of July. The fireworks are just beginning.