With a score by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, the musical "Assassins" presents a rogue's gallery of presidential assassins, or would-be assassins, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley Jr., with the likes of Leon Czolgosz and Lee Harvey Oswald in between. Most musicals deemed audacious in 1990 do not seem so now. But as relived quite vividly on Friday night at the Viaduct Theatre, where there is a small but spirited new production from producer-director Billy Pacholski, "Assassins" is the exception to that rule.
This material still feels shocking, especially when staged in the final days of a presidential election and following numerous instances of gun violence. Democracy, it reminds us, is forever fragile when all someone has to do is move their little finger, to paraphrase a lyric, and they can blow up the world. That feeling is amplified in Pacholski's production, which uses a lot of video, including the Zapruder film of events in Dallas in 1963. I'm not sure that distracting element of realism was a great idea, tempting as it may have been.
In essence, "Assassins" wants to peek into the souls of these blights on America, treating them not as two-dimensional monsters, which is usually our reaction in these choking moments, but as three-dimensional beings whose acts tend to flow from their insecurities and wants. That's not to say Weidman and Sondheim were sympathetic to killers; not at all. They just were playing the roles of artistic observers, looking for links, answers and questions.
The first issue with "Assassins," always, is how well a production can match form with subject matter. The material has a kind of old-time American, semi-vaudevillian patina, and ever since this show saw the light of day, there have been debates about how well that suited these individuals (as distinct, say, from some kind of dark realism). These days, with Sondheim's music and lyrics recognized widely for their incomparable genius, people tend to worry less about that and just appreciate the artistry of the music, noting with approval that it is so in tune with the caustic theme.
Whenever I've seen "Assassins," there comes a time when the inner workings of these twisted creatures starts to wear on me and I start thinking of the people they killed and the progress they prevented. Sondheim and Weidman anticipated that by providing, close to the end of the one-act show, one of the most gorgeous songs in the Sondheim cannon. "Something Just Broke" expresses the other side of the coin — the widespread, very public, very personal pain the killers caused. It is one of my favorite songs, not the least because it so richly expresses what happens in an event that combines personal tragedy and huge scope. Every pull of a trigger, and I include killers who have roamed school hallways along with those who've tried to kill presidents, makes you feel like something has been chipped from the rock.
Weirdly, Pacholski moves that song closer to the beginning. I'm sure he had his reasons (although I wonder about permission to do so). But it nonetheless hurts the crucial emotional arc of the production, which seems to fall apart before the end. It's a shame, because Pacholski has some interesting ideas, an excellent musical director in Robert Ollis and a good little orchestra. He also cast some fine young talent in Kevin Webb (who plays Booth) and Aram Monisoff, who adds a great sadness to Czolgosz. Not everyone is at that level, but the singing and the presentation are superior to the storytelling.
When: Through Nov. 10
Where: Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $45 at 312-212-3470 or assassins-chicago.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye