It’s more than a little creepy to realize that there have been so many assassinations or attempts on the lives of various presidents of the United States that you can cast an entire musical with historical assassins.
But that’s what Stephen Sondheim did with his darkly wonderful play “Assassins,” which opened Friday and runs through October 19 at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove.
Even in the hands of a master such as Sondheim, the play had a bumpy rise to fame. It opened off Broadway in December 1990, but tangled in the American consciousness with Iraq War I and shut down the following February.
A London production in 1992 lasted for just 76 performances, and it wasn’t until the musical was revived again in 2004 – after being delayed three years by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – that it won five Tonys in a production starring Micheal Cerveris and Neil Patrick Harris.
All that said, the play is quick, funny and perfectly Sondheimish, with its fluid sense of time and music and motion.
A strong cast at Cottage Theatre, directed by Tony Rust, makes the complex show – which runs just under two hours, with no intermission – a fast-paced joy to hear and see.
The story brings together nine famous assassins and would-be assassins, from John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau to the Manson followers Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore.
Narcissistic losers all, they inhabit a kind of postmodernist limbo, where as the play begins they show up one by one at a fairgrounds shooting gallery and buy handguns, to the tune of “Everybody Has the Right.”
From there the play offers a madcap reflection on the resentment, failure and lust for celebrity that shoots through the American psyche and fuels so much violence.
The musical performances are good across the board, and some are great.
Lanny Mitchell, whose resume includes a lot of professional theater, has a commanding stage presence, and a fine voice, as the Balladeer. He serves as a narrator describing the sad state of the American Dream – which has been reduced, in this bleak vision, to wanting to win the lottery.
Kory Weimer is charming, if a little thin of voice, as John Wilkes Booth; Melissa Miller, as Squeaky Fromme, and Tracy Nygard, as Sara Jane Moore, are hilarious together as they plot to kill Gerald Ford; and George Comstock is a wonderfully smooth talking Charles Guiteau.
Finally, Dale Flynn is downright moving as Samuel Byck, an alcoholic tire salesman who made recordings he sent to Leonard Bernstein and other celebrities before he tried unsuccessfully to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking a DC-9 to crash it into the White House.
Jim Greenwood was music director, and the show is done with a five-piece orchestra.
Rust himself did the simple but striking set design, which consists of a giant American flag.
Parental warning: The show features strong language and adult themes.
If you’re a fan of musicals – or of the underbelly of American society – you should love this one.
Cottage Theatre | 700 Village Drive, Cottage Grove
Weekends through Oct. 19