PORTSMOUTH — Notorious assassins from John Wilkes Booth to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme take the stage in a provocative musical revue opening today at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre.
“Assassins” is one of Stephen Sondheim’s lesser known creations, but one in an arsenal of unlikely and wide-ranging sources of inspiration for the musical theater master, which also includes “Sweeney Todd,” a gory revenge plot about a murderous barber and his pie-baking accomplice, and “Into the Woods,” which explores the lasting effects of fairy tale characters’ choices and actions.
“Assassins” speaks to a volatile anxiety in American politics and society. It brings a circus-like atmosphere to deadly intentions behind U.S. presidential assailants and assassins.
Overall, the Rep describes the play as “bold, original, disturbing and alarmingly funny.”
“It’s a really beautiful piece of musical theater,” said director Dan Beaulieu. “It simply puts before us the hard truths that this has happened not once but time and time again. This is part of who we are as a country.”
“Assassins” depicts presidential assailants from Abraham Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, through Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, who each separately sought to kill President Gerald Ford.
From the opening scene in a fairground shooting gallery, to which they return throughout the musical amid their acts of individual notoriety, the assassins interact as an ensemble of misfits in Limbo. They share frustrations over love, politics, or the elusive “American dream.” Their motivations are portrayed in songs reflective of the periods in which they lived.
“It’s a sonic journey,” Beaulieu said. “Rather than shifting set pieces, and establishing (for example, that) ‘this is 1901,’ we hear it in the sound and the way the people speak.”
The cast includes all three of this year’s resident artists at the Seacoast Rep — Andrea Lyons, Alyssa Dumas and Jason Faria, who were selected in a move to revive the idea of a resident theater company at the Rep’s roots. Dumas and Faria also collaborated to choreograph the show. The set is meant to evoke a Coney Island fun house atmosphere, while stopping short of depicting the characters as freak show oddities. New resident artist Kevin Mahaney also joins the fray.
The original production of “Assassins” debuted off-Broadway in 1990. A Broadway production was planned for 2001, but delayed until 2004, with the topic considered too sensitive in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Beaulieu said.
The play does not ask the audience to sympathize with the assassins or judge them, but rather to consider what they reflect about the culture at large, said Beaulieu. “It’s not about the acts, but it’s about the people who did the act. They are united by a horrific choice they chose to make. These people existed and they are part of our cultural identity.”
Beaulieu, who also is artistic director of the 7 Stages Shakespeare Company in Portsmouth, said some of the elements are purposefully light.
“There is great levity and hope in it, despite the fact that it is a clinical examination of horrific acts,” he said.
He tried to keep the atmosphere light during necessarily intense rehearsals by, for example, one day asking each cast member to tell a joke before getting down to practice.
“It’s still a musical; it still is really fun. The music is so beautiful and there are dances that are really fun and funky,” he said. “This cast is very entertaining. I’ve gotten goose bumps in rehearsal. I hope people get catharsis out of it. I think the audience will walk away with a tune to whistle or hum on the way home.”