COSTA MESA — Assassins is a "different" sort of a musical, as one patron effused on her way out of Orange Coast College's production on opening night. The heroes and heroines of this dark fantasy by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman are killers, yes, but not mere murderers. As John Wilkes Booth, pioneer of President-shooters, explains to reluctant protege Lee Harvey Oswald: "Adulterers and shopkeepers get murdered. When a President gets killed, he is assassinated."
The glamour of killing the top dog, the sweetness of momentary power, the promise of immortality, the triumph of finally being someone: These are the shining lights of the American Dream as envisioned by nine tortured souls goaded by poor digestion, disappointed love, bad reviews and/or endemic desperation to take a shot at a President.
"Assassins" is a provocative and compelling speculative social studies lesson that treads through the graveyard of historical mythology to unearth the humanity of these "victims of indifference and neglect" who changed history with a crook of their fingers.
OCC's soft-edged production is more dreamy than nightmarish, but even though he is shooting with rubber bullets, director John Ferzacca hits his targets dead on.
These assassins are seldom sinister, but often humorous, particularly in Craig Fleming's antic performance as dapper Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James Garfield. Fleming dances his way to the gallows in a very funny bid to "look on the bright side" as he goes to meet his maker, swearing with sudden and effectively frightening vehemence that he will be remembered.
Eric Anderson makes a suave John Wilkes Booth, not completely persuasive as the Svengali of assassins but elegant and oily, with a fine, whiskey-smooth voice. As Sara Jane Moore, Harriet Whitmyer is frumpy and funny, an airheaded klutz who can't shoot straight.
Over all, the company performs wholeheartedly, and Ferzacca's direction moves the actors purposefully through fanciful vignettes and solo turns that eventually bring this bevy of misfits to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
As the chorus sings in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination: "I'll remember it forever." Those who lived through that day still feel the pain of that memory--the truest attestation to the power of the assassin's bullet.
In spite of a open-ceilinged room that seems to swallow sound, musical director Rose Jussenhoven gets good results all around, except when Giuseppe Zangara, who tried to shoot FDR, has his final say: Actor Carlos Felix's accent and the synthesizer conspire to muddy the fast-moving lyrics.
David Scaglione's scenic design captures the American spirit: An innocent-looking carnival shooting gallery, hung with bunting and crowned by flags and an eagle, it swivels to reveal the underbelly of the American dream--the electric chair and the hangman's noose.
* "Assassins," Orange Coast College Drama Lab Studio, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends March 19. $8-$10. (714) 432-5880. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
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Eric Anderson: John Wilkes Booth
Craig Fleming: Charles Guiteau
L. Joseph Dunham: Leon Czolgosz
Carlos Felix: Giuseppe Zangara
Michael Hebler: Samuel Byck
Terri Mowrey: Lynette Fromme
Harriet Whitmyer: Sara Jane Moore
Mark Krumme: John Hinckley
P.J. Agnew: Lee Harvey Oswald
Rudy Martinez: Balladeer
Bil Barratt: Proprietor
Rita Renee: Emma Goldman
Nathaniel Holden: Herold, Blaine
Ryan Brandos: Union soldier, Bartender, Photographer, Uniform Attendant
Alan Slabodkin: Presidents Garfield, McKinley and Ford
Kristi Sewel: Little Girl Sally
Rachel Davenport: Hilary Hesse
Rose Jussenhoven: Piano 1
Richard Heckman: Piano 2
Eric Schultheiss: Percussion
Deanna Schultheiss: Flute and clarinet
An Orange Coast College department of theater arts production. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by John Ferzacca. Choreography by Susan Thoma. Vocal and musical direction by Rose Jussenhoven. Scenic design: David Scaglione. Lights: Dave Dunbrack. Costumes: Brenda Wyatt.