The criminal pathological profiles of assassins and those who attempted to assassinate U.S. Presidents isn’t a subject one would expect for a musical. But when it is Stephen Sondheim whose Sweeney Todd (1979) portrayed a demon barber who provided human innards for meat pies, you know that the dark side isn’t out of bounds.
In 1990, Sondheim traversed to that region again with musical book writer James Weidman: Assassins. This musical delves into the psyches of various men and a few women who murdered or attempted to murder the commander-in-chief.
Theater Latté Da has revived Assassins at the Ritz with a well-crafted vaudevillian acting style and a carnival setting that glories in the circus-like atmosphere that has gone hand in glove with American politics since the early years of the Republic.
Director Peter Rothstein is a master director of musicals, but if you bear in mind his great Guthrie stagings of M. Butterfly and Other Desert Cities, you know he also has a gift for eliciting deep psychological performances. With Assassins he does exactly that once again. The actors reveal a derangement syndrome of narcissistic personality disorders, complicated by persecution fantasies and manic compulsions to blame others for perceived personal failures. This is quite pronounced among certain males. A small number of males of course, but a tiny yet consequential minority that can wreak dreadful havoc. Recent mass shootings point to that as well.
Dieter Bierbrauer, a veteran of Rothstein’s canon, shines like a dark crystal as Abraham Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, and Tyler Michaels viscerally reflects the inner torment of that most contested of assassins, Lee Harvey Oswald, who some say killed John Kennedy and others say did not. Shinah Brashears crackles with harrowing and hilarious delusion as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to kill Gerald Ford, spellbound by brainwashing from the Charles Manson cult.
That said, Weidman and composer-lyricist Sondheim include lesser known assassins and wannabes. James Detmar is especially jolting as Samuel Byck, obsessed in his unhinged hatred for Richard Nixon. Evan Tyler Wilson ascertains the eye-popping irrationality of John Hinckley, who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in order to impress a young actress named Jodie Foster.
The rest of the cast is marvelous as well, with gripping vocals under Jason Hansen’ s music direction: Benjamin Dutcher, Mario Esteb, Eric Morris, Rodolfo Nieto, Sarah Ochs, and Matt Riehle. Musicians Wade Clark, Josh Carlson, and Dylan Younger bring exhilarating flair to the ironical score. Eli Sherlock’s set fittingly reflects the decrepit aspect of a carnival worn down by time and decay.
Through Mar. 18
Ritz Theatre, 345 Thirteenth Ave. NE, Minneapolis