The company of Assassins
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
The company of Assassins
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
Director Joe Calarco has allowed a faulty concept to overtake his much-anticipated staging of the darkly comic Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical Assassins, now playing at Signature Theatre. As a result, this show about people with guns is a misfire.

Assassins is by no a means a conventional musical. It delves into the minds of nine people -- including John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald -- who either failed or succeeded in the obscene practice of assassinating American presidents. Through his score, Sondheim compels the audience to come to grips with this group of misfits and crazy zealots, whose only common ground may be their dissatisfaction with how the American dream has eluded them. The various attacks on U.S. presidents are neither celebrated nor condemned, although the reinserted song "Something Just Broke" (cut from the original Off-Broadway production) explores the wider ramifications of the violence.

Calarco, who had a major success with Signature's Urinetown last season, has written that "up until the moment these assassins actually pull the trigger, we're all more alike than different." Accordingly, he and James Kronzer have rigged up a set design that causes the audience to gasp in amazement. Within the black box venue, we take our seats in a raked gallery facing a massive American flag. Then the flag disappears and we're faced with ourselves; we see a mirror image of an identical gallery populated by the assassins in various stages of repose. The effect is disorienting, startling, breathtaking.

Unfortunately, Calarco's point is quickly made, and then we're stuck having to watch the entire show -- two hours, without intermission -- performed among seats rather than sets. Moreover, until nearly the end, much of the lighting is disappointingly flat. So is the dialogue, as the actors chase each other randomly about both galleries, brushing against the legs of the spectators.

Signature mainstay Will Gartshore and frequent presence Stephen Gregory Smith anchor the production, although it's an uneven match. Gartshore plays Booth with a swaggering intensity, creating a haunted figure who worries that history will be written by people who don't see his act as noble. Smith is the "Balladeer" who appears throughout the show, offering musical commentary -- until he morphs into Kennedy assassin Oswald late in the action. His voice is less than robust; without a microphone, it's frequently lost in the swirling sounds of Jon Kalbfleisch's nine-piece orchestra. And, unlike the other cast members, Smith has not tried to make himself physically resemble Oswald, a choice that undermines an already bland portrayal.

Anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who killed President McKinley, is played with dead-eyed resolve by Tally Sessions. Andy Brownstein creates a vivid portrait of Samuel Byck, the rage-filled man who tried to hijack a 747 and crash it into Richard Nixon's White House; the actor alternates between dramatic intensity and dark comedy as he spills his fury into a tape recorder. But Peter Joshua makes little impression as Giuseppe Zangara, who shot at FDR; and Mika Duncan portrays Charles Guiteau, the assassin of James A. Garfield, as a wild-eyed, comic kook.

President Ford's two unsuccessful assailants, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Erin Driscoll) and Sara Jane Moore (Donna Migliaccio), are an odd couple: Fromme is twisted and obsessed, while Moore epitomizes the banality of evil. Matt Conner, twitchy and awkward as Reagan assailant John Hinckley, sings the lovely duet "Unworthy of Your Love" with Driscoll as Hinckley yearns to win Jodie Foster's approval and Fromme seeks to please her mentor, Charles Manson. Other highlights are "The Gun Song," sung by Sessions, Gartshore, Duncan, and Migliaccio; and "Another National Anthem," sung by the company. That number chills the psyche even as the music makes you hum along.

We wander through each assassin's story until we finally meet Oswald, a sad loser about to commit suicide in Dallas. Booth and his macabre group descend on him in the book depository and urge him instead to make history, to make all of them significant again by bringing political murder into the contemporary American experience. Here, Calarco falls back on stagecraft; the theater is suddenly transformed into the familiar sixth floor sniper's nest through the magic of visual effects and Chris Lee's lighting. The combination of the surreal setting, Gartshore's strong presence, and the fantasy of Booth and Oswald meeting is extremely powerful. In this one moment, Assassins really kills.