Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 “Assassins” is a uniquely bizarre musical about plots against presidents, from John Wilkes Booth on. It highlights the dark side of the American dream for fame and success, and does so with black humor that skirts the uncomfortable. For those brave enough to produce the play, it is a huge challenge.
Over the weekend, one of San Francisco’s small, adventurous and excellent theater companies, 10-year-old Ray of Light Theatre, opened a brilliant production of “Assassins” at the Eureka Theatre.
The extraordinary community-theater company, which last scored with “Jerry Springer the Opera,” has marshaled a cast of Broadway quality.
Even more, Ray of Light offers a bouquet of individual performances bursting out in a true, selfless ensemble presentation. Kudos to company artistic director Shane Ray, stage director Jason Hoover, and music director David Möschler.
John Weidman’s book closes with the assassins’ hosts coercing Lee Harvey Oswald to kill John F. Kennedy, while Sondheim’s usual clever lyrics are difficult to laugh with in the play’s context.
Yet the music is different from other Sondheim works. Other than the stillborn “Bounce,” “Assassins” has Sondheim’s least inventive music. Some of it has much in common with “Pacific Overtures,” another cooperation with Weidman, and the patter-songs of “Into the Woods.” The rest, musically, is a mélange of Americana — clever, but not “A Little Night Music” or “Sweeney Todd.”
Still, in such an inspiring production, a minor Sondheim work is superior to shows about singing cats or roller-skating trains. Unlike many mainstream contemporary musicals, “Assassins” engages the brain and emotions and has lasting substance.
The wonderful trio of Steven Hess’ towering Proprietor, Derrick Silva’s powerful Booth and Michael Scott Wells’ mocking, revelatory Balladeer — who morphs into a main character in the end — is at the center of Ray of Light’s excellent cast.
One by one, killers and would-be assassins march by, revealing their private pains and demons, and at the same time being funny and entertaining.
Gregory Sottolano plays Charles Guiteau, who killed James Garfield. Joel Roster portrays Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley, and enamored of anarchist Emma Goldman (Anna Smith).
A pair of scary-funny, bungling, psychotic women attempting to kill Gerald Ford, Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme, are brought to life by Lisa-Marie Newton and Eliza Leoni.
Danny Cozart plays another would-be assassin, Samuel Byck, who had planned to crash a plane into Richard Nixon’s White House.
Alex Rodriguez plays Giuseppe Zangara, whose bullets missed FDR; Charles Woodson-Parker is the woebegone John Hinckley Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan for the love of Jodie Foster.
Möschler conducts a band of seven from the piano; they and the singers are amplified in the tiny theater, not in excess, but still occasionally interfering with diction, which is so important in a Sondheim musical.
Wouldn’t it be a pioneering adventure, worthy of Ray of Light, to get away from the half-century-long bane of amplification in venues that don’t need it?
Presented by Ray of Light Theatre
Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m, Sundays; closes June 25
Tickets: $20 to $36
Contact: (415) 690-7658, www.roltheatre.com