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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006 04:11 pm

Killer theater

Springfield welcomes a comedy about presidential assassins

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Rick Dunham portrays Samuel Byck, who tried to hijack a plane and kill President Nixon
Photo by Donna Lousberry

Every morning for nearly two years now, I’ve passed a lifelike figure of John Wilkes Booth on my way to work at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. This week, Booth comes to life onstage in one of the most thought-provoking, challenging, and disturbing musicals of recent years.

Lincoln’s murderer is one of nine disturbed people whose stories are told in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s provocative musical Assassins, which opens Friday, Oct. 13, at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

To say that Assassins, which made its off-Broadway premiere in 1991, is one of Sondheim’s most difficult and controversial shows is an understatement.

Basically the show tells the story of people who have tried to kill a president, including four who succeeded — Booth (President Lincoln, 1865), Charles Guiteau (President James Garfield, 1881), Leon Czolgosz (President William McKinley, 1901), and Lee Harvey Oswald (President John F. Kennedy, 1963).

The show, which tries to paint a picture of what makes a person do such a thing, has a kind of bizarre, carnivalesque Twilight Zone feel to it. The setting is actually a carnival shooting gallery.

“People ask, ‘Why do a show about presidential assassins?’ ” says director Rich McCoy, who emphasizes that the show is “not a glorification of killers.

“This is the price we pay for a free and open democracy,” McCoy says. “The show indicates that each assassin has his or her own problem with America, feeling that they’ve been left out in some way — ‘Where’s my prize?’ they complain.”

Assassins is one of Sondheim’s most interesting scores, incorporating a variety of styles in songs such as “Everybody’s Got the Right,” “How I Saved Roosevelt,” “Gun Song,” “Unworthy of Your Love” (would-be Ronald Reagan assassin John Hinckley’s love song to Jodie Foster), “The Ballad of Guiteau,” and “Another National Anthem.”

McCoy, who recently performed in the ensemble of Sondheim’s Into the Woods at New Salem, says Sondheim “does a wonderful job of layering in historical sound in each piece, from Sousa to light rock.”

McCoy and Carly Shank are co-directing the production, which features John O’Connor as Booth, Cory Blissett as Hinckley, and Dale Mason as Oswald. Chris Walters of Jacksonville plays the Balladeer, a character who leads the audience through the shooting gallery of assassins, and serves as the show’s vocal director.

“I hope Springfield audiences continue to support edgier kinds of theater like this,” McCoy says. “It’s a dark comedy, a show to make people think.”

For tickets, call the Hoogland box office at 217-523-2787. Assassins plays Oct. 13-15 and 20-22.

Phil Funkenbusch writes about theater for Illinois Times.

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