Fantasy Dodges History in `Assassins'

THEATER: REVIEW

ASSASSINS Musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman. Directed by Jerry Zaks. At Playwrights Horizons through Feb. 16.

``ASSASSINS'' illustrates the consequences of audacity in the world of show business.

The subject - brief views of killers and would-be killers of American presidents - seems scarcely the stuff of even an offbeat musical. The musical by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and dramatist John Weidman has received a mixed press. But even before opening, it was sold out at Playwrights Horizons.

Not to overlook the drawing power of the creative team, including director Jerry Zaks, but the musical's content might well give a playgoer pause. And so it should. Yet one must appreciate the production's style and the provocative manner in which its assorted misfits, fanatics, and crazies have been presented.

Since the victims gave the perpetrators a passing notoriety, it was up to the creative team to account for - though far from justify - the firings of ``the little gun'' that could ``change the world.'' Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Weidman have done so by suggesting what went on within the twisted psyches of some otherwise unexceptional human beings. The question remains whether in the process of mocking the American dream with their idiosyncratic view, the authors have trivialized tragedy.

Of the nine perpetrators who parade across the Playwrights Horizons stage, John Wilkes Booth is the most flamboyant and one of the most articulate. Played by Victor Garber, Booth rails against what he terms the tyranny of the president he martyred. In the evening's finale, Booth galvanizes a faltering Lee Harvey Oswald (Jane Alexander) into action.

``Assassins'' opens in a surreal carnival as an aggressive Proprietor (William Parry) urges the assembling murderers to take a shot at a whirling target of presidential images. (``Hit the President and win a prize!'')

Thereafter, history meets itself coming and going as the assassins plan their crimes, meet in brief encounters, and form occasional vocal combinations. The action progresses in a rapid succession of revue-like sketches and musical numbers.

The tune titles suggest the recurrently ironic tone of the eclectic and attractive score - titles like ``Everybody's Got the Right [to be happy],'' ``How I Saved Roosevelt,'' ``Gun Song,'' and ``Another National Anthem.''

In a typical example of the Weidman script, Leon Czolgosz (Terrance Mann), who assassinated President McKinley, meets supportive anarchist Emma Goldman (Lyn Greene) as she is on her way to deliver a lecture. Lynette ``Squeaky'' Fromme (Anne Golden) and Sara Jane Moore (Debra Monk) have a mind-boggling conversation prior to their unsuccessful attempt on the life of President Ford (Mr. Parry). Charles Guiteau (Jonathan Hadary) wildly boasts of his qualifications for ambassadorial office and then shoots President Garfield for failing to recognize them.

The script delves into the dark underside of economic deprivation in the case of Gzolgosz. At the heart of all these warped personalities is the gross egotism of a killer whose crime deprives a nation of its elected leader. (Sondheim and Weidman claim that their fantasy rests on fact.)

Under Mr. Zaks's zesty direction, ``Assassins'' is performed with verve. Several of the members of the cast play multiple roles. Those who failed in their fatal mission include Guiseppe Zangara (Eddie Korbich), Samuel Byck (Lee Wilkof), and John Hinckley (Greg Germann), would-be slayers of respectively President-elect Roosevelt, President Nixon, and President Reagan. Patrick Cassidy is impressive as a kind of Greek chorus balladeer.

One can be passingly entertained by ``Assassins'' without being drawn to its reprehensible characters. The musical numbers are smartly accompanied by a sidestage trio under the direction of percussionist Paul Gemignani. Leon Sherman (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Paul Gallo (lighting) are responsible for the clever designs. D.G. Giagni devised the occasional choreography.

Playgoers averse to stage gunplay should be warned that the 90-minute vaudeville explodes with frequent revolver shots.

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