BY ERIC MARCHESE / CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Published: Feb. 25, 2014 Updated: 7:34 p.m.
Though many of his previous musicals were dark, "Assassins," about a select group of Americans whose warped deeds ensured their names a permanent place in the history books, was composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim's darkest show to date.
Sondheim and book writer John Weidman, working from an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., chose the form of the small-scale musical to explore the personalities of the various men and women who aimed - successfully or not - to kill an American president.
Costa Mesa Playhouse's well-paced staging capitalizes on the 1990 show's kinship with musical revues, enhanced by director David A. Blair's courtroom-style scenic design and Alex Foster's projections of historical presidential photos.
The dark tale spun by the show's 10 musical numbers is bookended by John Wilkes Booth, referred to here as the patron saint of all American assassins, and Lee Harvey Oswald.
For most of the show, Jason Holland plays the singing narrator-like character called The Balladeer. Holland's portrayal of him as a square, bespectacled, bookworm in natty suit and tie washes away most traces of color the role may hold, the character seeming like he'd be at home with any American political moderate of the 1950s or '60s.
The show's basic dynamic: An actual or would-be killer generally earns our sympathy via song - then The Balladeer chimes in, painting each as more or less a screwball. The tactic paints the characters as mere misfits, erasing any possible traces of dignity while also oversimplifying the nuances of human nature.
The closing number shows everyone from 1865 assassin Booth through failed 1981 assassin John Hinckley, Jr., trying to convince Oswald - scripted and played by Holland as both a reluctant malcontent and a miserable failure bent on suicide - of the glory inherent in taking the life of a head of state. This may ties things up dramatically, but logically, intellectually and otherwise, it's a leaky sieve.
Thankfully, most of Blair's cast members transcend such flaws. William Shaffner, Marc Montminy and Stephen Hulsey as, respectively, assassins Booth, Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz, and Philip Falcone as would-be assassin Samuel Byck, are simply superb, whether working in solo or with others.
Shaffner wisely averts what have become stereotypical depictions of Booth as a tense, driven fireball. The actor is tall, slim and pale, and his high, often quivering voice and Southern-style courtliness imbue Booth with more idealism and vulnerability than we typically see in "Assassins," making him heartbreakingly plaintive.
Montminy, too, confounds our expectations of Guiteau as an obsessive, demented fruit loop, opting instead for a cheerful hustler - disgruntled and delusional, yes, but always confident in his ability to come out on top. In the derisive "Ballad of Guiteau," which mocks religion by meshing a hymn into a sick vaudeville routine that ends with the assassin's hanging, Montminy helps ramp up the creepy-disturbing quotient this staging often skirts.
Amplified by Hulsey's thick, realistic Slavic accent, Czolgosz and his plight are moving. The glum character desperately latches onto anarchist activist Emma Goldman (Tiffany McQuay), in whom he has fallen in love. Hulsey's potent performance is deep and profound, searing itself into our memory.
As Byck, whose wearing of a Santa Claus costume lends touches of absurdist theater, Falcone is equally vivid - a burly, morose schlub with a gravelly, New York-inflected voice, sarcastic manner and hair-trigger temper.
The actor's portrayal explodes with undisguised anger and bitterness, his gripping final monologue depicting a wack job frighteningly capable of violence.
Coleman Summers' large, black-rimmed glasses, owlish appearance and ingenuous nature delineate his portrayal of Hinckley. The actor projects palpable sincerity, causing us to feel uncomfortably protective toward this tight-lipped young loner.
Undermined by the script are director Blair's adept portrayal of Giuseppe Zangara, Samantha Blair's Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Cathy Petz's Sarah Jane Moore - the latter two unwisely used, both by the show and the performers, primarily as comic relief. Garbed in black (including a black eye-patch), Louis B. Jack paints the character known as "The Proprietor" as a harshly stereotypical "hanging judge" sort of figure.
Musically, the production is first-rate, with Hulsey doubling as music director. His sure-handedness, bolstered by pianist Taylor Stephenson and percussionist Carlo Virtucio, fulfills the promise of Sondheim's score. The three-man, three-woman, one-child ensemble is solid whether working en masse or in portraying such figures as James Garfield or Gerald R. Ford.
"Assassins" can and should be a disturbing, unnerving evening of theater. That it doesn't quite rattle us at CMP does indeed detract from the show - but not enough to derail what is its generally trenchant look at an American Dream gone terribly askew.
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When: Through March 9. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (Feb. 28: post-show talk-back with cast and crew)
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
How much: $18 ($16 seniors/students)
Length: 1 hour, 50 minutes (no intermission)
Suitability: Adults and teens (for profanity and dark content)