Some did it out of anger, some out of a twisted sense of love. Some did it out of vengeance, some out of a desire for fame. Some succeeded, some failed. But what the principal characters in the dark musical comedy "Assassins" have in common is right there in the title: They all attempted to assassinate the president of the United States.
In the show (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by John Weidman; currently presented by the Los Altos Stage Company), assassins and assassin-wannabes are grouped together in a purgatory of sorts, a mad carnival set outside the boundaries of time, where a carnival barker (the Proprietor, played in this production by David Murphy) calls out to them, handing out guns and making a game out of murdering the commander in chief. "Everyone deserves the right to be happy," he croons to them, and if they can't be happy, they can at least get noticed.
Leading the assassin crew is a suave-but-rage-filled John Wilkes Booth (Chase Campbell), who, after paving the way by killing Abraham Lincoln, serves as a mentor and instigator of sorts to the others. Those include the airheaded Charles Manson acolyte Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Alea Selburn), unhinged housewife Sara Jane Moore (Philomena Block), embittered Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara (Anthony Stephens), would-be revolutionary Leon Czolgosz (Andy Cooperfauss), delusional huckster Charles Guiteau (Ken Boswell), rambling blowhard Samuel Byck (Todd Wright), creepy loner John Hinckley, Jr. (Conner Smith) and the misanthropic Lee Harvey Oswald (Drew Jones).
A Balladeer (Brian Palac) serves as narrator and counterweight to the Proprietor. While the Proprietor eggs on the assassins, the Balladeer reminds them that, despite their grasps at glory, their actions were largely useless and their names mostly forgotten. America will survive them.
The assassins' stories are presented episodically, without chronological sequence, and with characters often interacting with one another in surprising ways. The one-act production (directed by Lee Ann Payne) takes the form of a vaudeville show or Fourth of July fair, with Ron Gasparinetti's red-white-and-blue set design striking just the right tone of hokey, ironic pageantry. Costumes by Y. Sharon Peng and props by Ting-Na Wang help peg the characters to the eras in which they belong (and include in one memorable scene a whole slew of Ronald Reagan masks).
Sondheim's lyrics are his greatest strength and "Assassins" is no exception, full of clever rhymes and nimble wordplay. "Gun Song," presented in barbershop-quartet style, reflects on all the lives involved in making just one gun, and on how the world can be changed by the simple moving of one little finger. His melodies in this show also soar, with changes in song style to befit the era represented, from old-timey Americana and gospel for the early Assassins to cheesy soft-pop love song for the 1970s. Themes from other works, including American folk ballads, "West Side Story" and "Hail to the Chief" also cleverly weave their way into the score.
Performances from the Los Altos Stage Company players vary in quality but impress on the whole. Particular standouts are Palac as the Balladeer, with his beautiful singing voice, and Wright, in a tour-de-force role delivering Bycks' rants, in turn hilarious and harrowing. Selburn and Block have good comedic chemistry as the buffoonish almost-assassins of Gerald Ford. But best of all is Boswell, in the plum role of Charles Guiteau. Guiteau, killer of President Garfield (who took 11 excruciating weeks in 1881 to finally die from his festering gunshot wounds), is a fascinating character who steals every scene in which he appears. Having failed at everything he's tried -- being a lawyer, an evangelical preacher, an author and a diplomat -- Guiteau never gives up his irrepressible optimism, certain that, despite lacking any qualifications, Garfield will appoint him ambassador to France. After he's rejected, and shoots the president in a fit of vengeance, he maintains that he was acting under the direction of God and, after a trial full of antics, goes merrily to the gallows, dancing and reciting his own poetry from the scaffold. The wonderful Boswell infuses his madman of a character with twinkle-eyed good humor and dapper charm. In this production of "Assassins," his big number, "Ballad of Guiteau," is the high point of the show.
"Assassins," with its sharp humor, may have been more shocking when it first premiered off-Broadway back in 1990 but it is still unsettling today. The show doesn't attempt to glamorize or redeem its murderous protagonists -- in many cases they're purely targets of mockery -- but it does force the audience to consider their perspectives, these damaged souls who've become villains of history and trivial footnotes. They feel powerless and angry, conned out of their American dream, with a deep desire to be noticed. And they're dangerous. It's a history lesson, but also a powerful comment on the intermingling of violence and celebrity in American culture.
In an age in which gun violence remains a major issue, when a presidential candidate can glibly suggest "Second Amendment people" might take out a political rival, it's disconcerting and uncomfortable to sit in the audience while the cast points guns right into the crowd. But, in the words of the Balladeer, "Listen to the stories. Hear it in the songs. Angry men don't write the rules and guns don't right the wrongs."
IF YOU GO
Where: Los Altos Stage Company at the Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.
When: Through Sept. 25
Info: Go to losaltosstage.org