It's an odd idea for a musical, perhaps, to look at the infamous assassins who have slithered around the underbelly of America, but no stranger than murderous women in Chicago in the 20s or the midlife crisis of an Italian director or Sondheim's own forays into loony bin inmates and a barber consumed with razor-sharp revenge. But perhaps because its subject matter seemed "a little wrong," Assassins was produced off-Broadway first, at Playwrights Horizon, in 1990, with a cast that included Victor Garber, Terrence Mann and Debra Monk among its assassins. It's been steadily produced since then, with a very strong production at Urbana's Station Theater all the way back in 1992, and a splashy revival on Broadway in 2004 that earned a Tony for Michael Cerveris. Along the way, through London and San Jose and St. Louis, Assassins has been adjusted a bit here and there, including the addition of a song, but its basic structure, that book musical masquerading as a revue, remains constant.
Sondheim called John Weidman's book "a collage," and that's as accurate as anything, mixing people from different times in American history, working within its own time and space, overlapping pointy, sharp-edged pieces of the American Dream with gunpowder and fried chicken, with a sense of the theatrical infusing its grimy deeds. At its heart, it's a small musical, one that works just fine in a black box theater. (See: Station Theater production mentioned above.) That means it should be fine in the University of Illinois Studio Theatre in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. And yet... It isn't.
Director J.W. Morrissette and scenic designer Daniela Cabrera rely on thin candy-cane-striped scaffolding and a circular stair set against the east side of their black box, with seating on the other three sides. There are signs and ephemera scattered here and there, with big dollar signs or "the right to bear arms" or other evocative phrases painted on set pieces, strings of twinkly lights, and a nine-piece orchestra tucked under the narrow platform that spans the top of the scaffolding. Unfortunately, Morrissette has chosen to play significant scenes on that gallery, up there next to the ceiling, which is hard to light and hard to see from major portions of the audience. And the orchestra is pitched too loud and too close, often drowning out singers valiantly trying to negotiate Sondheim's lyrics. Since this is a show that tells its story through its lyrics, that's a big problem.
Morrissette has the benefit of MFA actor Jordan Coughtry as John Wilkes Booth; Coughtry has the vocal and acting skills to make his part of the narrative really sing. Yvon Streacker is also good as Guiseppe Zangara, the man who tried to kill FDR, and the other members of the ensemble have good moments, but they are too often hampered by staging that leaves them isolated and distant from their fellow players and choreography that seems chaotic and messy. As a result, the pace and the individual characterizations suffer.
I saw the show on opening night and it may be that the pieces will gel as it continues its run, that everyone will settle in and find the truth instead of indicating the drama in their characters. I hope so. Assassins is too good a show for missed opportunities.
Assassins continues through February 11 at the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana. Although there is currently a waiting list for every performance, there were quite a few empty seats on the night I saw the show, which should mean there's a chance you'll get in from that waiting list.