In Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim–John Weidman musical on the subject of executive execution, the character of John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln and scorched his way into the history books, opines about the difference between a common misdemeanor and a supreme act of political defiance: “Shopkeepers and lovers get murdered – presidents get assassinated!”

It’s the crime that almost dares not speak its name, so hideous is the act in the consciousness of the American citizenry. And yet, by the time you read this, Barack Obama, a black man, will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States. It’s not hard to imagine that somewhere in the nation’s aggrieved heartland there exists a lost, deranged individual, feeling either painfully impotent or, conversely, absurdly omnipotent, who might want to follow in the dreadful footsteps of Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald or other lesser-known lights in the killers’ pantheon. Does the name James Earl Ray strike a bell?

So how can a musical about such a profane topic manage to both enthuse and entertain its audiences? The answer is: by combining brilliant characterizations; well-crafted, in-your-face dialogue; dark humor; superlative music and lyrics; and excellent acting from the entire ensemble. At least that’s the case at the Mad Cow Theatre, where, under the direction of Alan Bruun, the 1990 opus is receiving a highly polished and energetic revival.

In addition, even though each member of the assassins’ club is clearly unbalanced and largely unlovable, Sondheim, Weidman and Bruun have managed to distill and amplify the abiding pathos that lay at the heart of every disturbed and misunderstood loner who, throughout our country’s history, has sought to change his or her own downward spiral by murdering its chief administrator – usually by gunshot, although the ex-tire salesman Samuel Byck tried to crash a 747 into Dick Nixon’s White House.

And each of the Mad Cow performers in this most audacious and provocative work has moments of sheer stage brilliance. That includes Jay T. Becker as the dour and downtrodden Leon Czolgosz, murderer of President McKinley; Jonathan Lang as Charles Guiteau, the smiling madman who brought down President Garfield; Eddy Coppens as Guiseppe Zangara, the dyspeptic Italian electrocuted for attempting to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt; Meggin Weaver as “Squeaky” Fromme and Kate O’Neal as Sara Jane Moore, two incompetent bunglers who both failed to dispatch Gerald Ford; Kurt von Schmittou as Byck, whose aforementioned airline plot against Nixon presaged the events of Sept. 11; Adam Galarza as John Hinckley Jr., the nerdy kid who shot Ronald Reagan to impress a movie star; Jesse LeNoir as Lee Harvey Oswald, the self-avowed “patsy” who ended John Kennedy’s life; and, of course, Kevin Kelly as the ubiquitous John Wilkes Booth, spiritual progenitor of the assassin’s lineage. Kudos also to Jacob Haines, who lends his bright tenor voice to the role of the Balladeer.

Although not your typical musical theater fare, Mad Cow’s Assassins simply kills.


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