Name a topic, a theme, an event and chances are someone has made it into a musical.
Rape, incest, corruption, sleaze, war, betrayal, love stories and tales of derring-do: Someone has put the whole thing to words and music. Nazis? No problem. Jewish pogroms in Russia? Big hit on Broadway. A murderous couple in Dickensian London whose victims end up in pies; a show with full puppet nudity; “brush up your Shakespeare;” storm the barricades; get to the church on time. All in song and dance.
There is no lack of material. Locally, soon, Shea’s will continue 710 Main’s revival with a production of “Menopause: The Musical,” with a hilarious score that includes the parody, “Puff, God, I’m Draggin.’” And on July 25, Buffalo United Artists will present “Poseidon! The Upside-Down Musical,” featuring the tune, “In the Water, I’m a Very Skinny Lady.” Nothing is sacred, everything is fair game.
Still, a musical about the history of the assassinations (successes or attempts) of American presidents? Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr., fearless composer and wordsmith Stephen Sondheim and his sometime librettist, John Weidman, have created such a work. It had a three-month off-Broadway run in 1990, a Broadway reincarnation in 2004 that garnered much praise – for recent Tony Award winner Neil Patrick Harris and others – and surfaces in regional theaters across the country and on college campuses.
Currently, Second Generation Theatre Co., very new and once again impressive, has the Sondheim-Weidman “Assassins” on the New Phoenix Theatre stage. It’s an often brilliant, surreal production that pounds and pulsates, irritates, mesmerizes, teaches and chills as it explores freedom and fanaticism. The gang is all here, a trigger-happy fraternity of psychopaths: John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangara, Lee Harvey Oswald, Samuel Byck, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sara Jane Moore and John W. Hinckley Jr. “Awful protagonists,” someone once observed.
A carnival. The Proprietor, presiding over a shooting gallery, welcomes each of the above, hears them out, sizes them up, offers them a pistol. Background checks? You’re kidding. A Balladeer, a voice of reason, a lithe, one-man Greek chorus, mocks, scolds and warns: “Angry men don’t write the rules; guns don’t write the laws.” In this sadly topical play, those shouted words seem to hover and linger, truth or wish waiting to be tested.
Sondheim’s era songs have lives of their own here. There are only nine of them but several will go home with you: “Everybody’s Got the Right,” “The Ballad of Booth” – with the astonishingly good Ben Puglisi; “Another National Anthem,” a potent song of the deluded and the dispossessed; a weird Hinckley duet with Fromme, the Charles Manson sycophant; and “Something Just Broke,” a nation’s depression on Nov. 22, 1963.
Chris Cavanagh directs this emotional “Assassins” and in his hands it becomes evident that these deranged and desperate souls all felt cheated out of the American Dream and political motivation was secondary or absent – except maybe for Booth and William McKinley’s slayer, Czolgosz, crazed but inspired by the ubiquitous anarchist, Emma Goldman. It would be tempting to overplay eccentricities in this harrowing play. Cavanagh doesn’t let it happen; he also superbly wears several technical hats.
The acting ensemble is outstanding vocally as well: an unforgettable Puglisi, Jacob Albarella, Jonathan Young, Steve Copps, Philip Farugia, Arin Lee Dandes, Geoff Pictor, Eric Rawski (creepy and pathetic as the nearly forgotten Sam Byck, a Richard Nixon-hater), Nick Lama and Michele Benzin. Plus five cartoonish “witnesses,” citizens also seeking their 15 minutes of fame: Sophia Howes, Matthew Iwanski, Kevin Kennedy, Christopher Andreana and the versatile and valuable Renee Landrigan.
Musical direction is by Allan Paglia, choreography is by Kristy Schupp.
Where: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park
When: Through July 13
Info: 864-0938, www.secondgenerationtheatre.com