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‘ASSASSINS’
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
When: Through July 20
Where: Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $38 Info: (773) 975-8150; http://www.theaterwit.org
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

No doubt about it: “Assassins,” the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical about that diverse band of outcasts, malcontents and psychotics who either murdered, or attempted to murder an American president, is the strangest, creepiest, most disturbing show in the Broadway canon. It also happens to be bloody brilliant.

The current revival by Kokandy Productions — a must-see show running through July 20 at Theater Wit — is enough to make your hair stand up on end. Riveting on every count, it is a major achievement for director Rachel Edwards Harvith, as well as for her music director (Kory Danielson), her formidable cast, and her design team (with special applause for Zachary Gipson’s vertiginous wood roller coaster-like set).

What’s more, “Assassins” serves as a chilling reminder of what can happen when guns get into the hands of some who are deranged and/or dispossessed. First produced Off Broadway in 1990, and then on Broadway in 2004, it has assumed eerie new dimensions in recent years. At once scathing and sardonic, it is both an indictment and a wake-up call.

“Hey pal, feelin’ blue?,” asks the proprietor of a fairground shooting gallery (an aptly sinister Jeff Meyer), as he seduces clients with the reminder that “Everybody’s got the right to be happy.” And one by one, intertwining anachronistically, the assassins step into the spotlight (or, in the case of one of them, lurk in the shadows). A Balladeer (the clarion-voiced Cole Doman), narrates their stories and goads them into action.

President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Eric Lindahl) is the “trailblazer” — the semi-successful actor with a fervent Confederate streak and profound hatred of the man in the White House. Then there is Charles Guiteau (Greg Foster, who thrillingly captures this preacher-writer-wannabe Ambasador to France, whos delusions of grandeur drive him to assassinate President Garfield. Leon Czolgosz (a stirring turn by Patrick Byrnes), who killed President McKinley, is the beaten down bottle factory laborer with a passion for Emma Goldman. Giuseppe Zangara (played expertly by understudy Andrew Sickel at the performance I saw), is the physically and mentally ill immigrant worker who killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, but was probably aiming for President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Of more recent vintage is Samuel Byck (a show-stopping turn by Jason Richards as the attempted assassin of President Nixon, whose crazed monologue is addressed to Leonard Bernstein), and John Hinckley (just right as the lonely, deluded sad-sack who hopes to attract the attention of actress Jodi Foster by assassinating President Reagan). The only women in this strange “club” are both fruitcakes who, within a few weeks of each other in 1975, attempted to assassinate President Ford. One is Charlie Manson’s “girlfriend,” Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Allison Hendrix, whose portrayal has a touch of genius). The other is the addled, middle-aged mom, Sara Jane Moore (power-voiced Neala Barron, with the ability to be both loony and, as Emma Goldman, fervent).

As for President Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (Nathan Gardner is ideal as the introverted “watcher”), he is alienation personified, and it is the public reaction to JFK’s death that is most tellingly recorded.

Sondheim’s score is a pastiche of Americana, but as only Sondheim can spin it, and his lyrics slice like a knife. “We’re the other national anthem, folks/The ones that can’t get in,” sing the assassins. And we notice them only after the fact.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com
Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic