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THEATER REVIEW: Long Beach Playhouse’s Assassins

Nick+Bradfield+%28Leon+Czolgosz%29%2C+Derek+Rubiano+%28John+Wilkes+Booth%29+and+Kevin+Wood+%28Charles+Guiteau%29+in+Long+Beach+Playhouse%E2%80%99s+Assassins
Nick Bradfield (Leon Czolgosz), Derek Rubiano (John Wilkes Booth) and Kevin Wood (Charles Guiteau) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Assassins

Nick Bradfield (Leon Czolgosz), Derek Rubiano (John Wilkes Booth) and Kevin Wood (Charles Guiteau) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Assassins

Courtesy Michael Hardy Photography

Courtesy Michael Hardy Photography

Nick Bradfield (Leon Czolgosz), Derek Rubiano (John Wilkes Booth) and Kevin Wood (Charles Guiteau) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Assassins

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Stephen Sondheim’s gun-totin’ musical Assassins is a self-consciously edgy show about a twisted American tradition– presidential assassination and its attendant gun violence. Sondheim is in his usual form with tricky, twisty songs that challenge our ears to keep up. But its biting satire is notably defanged; its perspective on gun violence is markedly before our current era of mass shootings. The cast may be game, but the story yearns for an update and clarity.

Assassins begins at a carnival shooting gallery bedecked in all the red, white and blue trappings of hokey Americana. The time and place are irrelevant. The gallery acts as a bizarre limbo and prison for the titular assassins that fuel our national nightmares. John Wilkes Booth is its self-appointed proprietor, the proud godfather to this cycle of violence.

Inglorious folks like the would-be assassins to Ford and Reagan, and the forgotten assassins to forgotten presidents (sorry, McKinley) all plea their respective cases. Assassins dares us to indulge sympathy for their not-so-clinically-insane desires. In the scenes between their hagiographies, they converse like lunatics in a shared asylum.

The cast of actors are achingly sincere in this production, but at times lacked clarity and enunciation. Mics occasionally dropped out as well and made discerning the songs’ labyrinthine wordplay difficult. One can hopefully chalk this up to opening night foibles. John Wilkes Booth (Derek Rubiano) and Charles Guiteau (Kevin Wood) put up admirable performances, and Jess Oliver shined bright as a nimble ensemble member. But while the individual musical numbers are glamorous, the overall story is meandering and near plotless. The production lacks the tightness to earn the offbeat tone.

The most effective segment is the show’s revisionist spin on Lee Harvey Oswald’s motives. Still, one imagines more effective ways to bring out its mix of pity and revulsion. The production dodges engaging with our current, painful relationship with guns. The musical was released in 1990–meaning, pre-Columbine and pre-Sandy Hook. One senses this show is uncomfortable with offering any take on the matter.

Assassins suggests that our propensity for death is connected to some distinct, inescapably American individualism– and a dash of vanity and mental illness. But these bleak riffs on weaponry and murder end up feeling dated, and to sidestep our current national conversation is a missed opportunity to enrich a revival of the show. It offers little surprise that Assassins would have its cast aim their gun sights at the audience. Why deny the choreography the easy, provocative move? It is likely written in the stage directions. However, the firearm gesture is mostly disturbing and not stimulating. One wonders if discomfort alone is enough for this musical to be staged with the correct mixture of edge and sensitivity– at least, in today’s America.

Assassins continues at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E Anaheim St., with shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. until Nov 17. Tickets are $24. For reservations and information, call (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org.

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THEATER REVIEW: Long Beach Playhouse’s Assassins