“ASSASSINS,” Dark Horse Company Theatre, Rose Wagner Theatre, Feb. 28-March 3, $25-$17, darkhorsecompanytheatre.com
OGDEN — Murder is a tawdry, little crime. But ah, an assassination! Take aim at a U.S. president and change the world. And all you have to do is crook your trigger finger.
In a preview engagement at the Ziegfeld Theater, Dark Horse Company Theatre has artfully produced “Assassins,” a provocative Tony Award-winning musical exploration of killers and wannabe shooters of American presidents. The topic is hardly your usual musical-theater fare, but the piece is written with insight and yields gunpowder-black humor and horrifyingly funny moments from history. Authors Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman convincingly argue that the availability of guns alone doesn’t produce murderous rampages. It’s the attempt of the bizarrely demented to be perceived as revered celebrities.
Director Anne Stewart Mark vividly captures the capability “Assassins” has to antagonize, amuse and astonish, propelling the audience to additional layers of understanding. Missing are consistent levels of actors flexible enough for the cartoonishly broad and energetic style the 1990 Broadway show requires. But the 15-member cast sings strongly under musical direction of Steven Barlow, in both solos and ensemble pieces, to produce a thrilling evening of theater. Credit is also due Barlow’s four-piece onstage band that does justice to Sondheim’s rousing score, which ranges from folk and ragtime to marches and anthems to ballads.
The best performers are led by one whose intensity is astoundingly muscular and vibrant. As Samuel Byck, who intended to crash an airplane into the Richard Nixon White House, Jesse Peery accomplishes a near-impossible feat: a powerful audience impression in a musical in which he doesn’t have a featured solo. He delivers a tremendous, ferocious “Have It Your Way” monologue and crafts a maniacal madman yet also a wholly believable next-door man. His paranoiac ramblings are truly thrilling moments that avid theatergoers crave, when an actor and a role collide to incinerate the stage.
Darla Davis is insanely funny as suburban housewife-turned-shooter Sara Jane Moore, another of the evening’s attractions. Doug Irey brings strong vocals and makes failed actor John Wilkes Booth matinee idol-dapper. Dustin Bolt’s “Ballad of Guiteau” is a well-sung sardonic paean to the James Garfield assassin, and Austin Archer nicely plays Lee Harvey Oswald as the “dismal and pathetic figure” that his wife saw as.
Full of rage and frustration, these killers use language far from civil, and that’s part of the upset-the-apple-cart conception.
The evening ends with the assassins singing “Everybody Has the Right,” a justification of freedom and its unintended consequences. “Assassins” is not often staged, but it’s an innovative and entertaining piece that deserves its acclaim. Dark Horse’s production is not to be missed for fearless and adventuresome staging.
Content advisory: profane language and mature theme