You won't find any heroes to root for in Stephen Sondheim's Assassins — unless you harbor a perverse wish that Samuel Byck had succeeded in crashing a commercial DC-9 into the White House and killing President Richard M. Nixon. Nor are there any surprising plot twists as nine successful and would-be assassins of American heads of state strut their hour and 40 minutes upon the CAST stage — except if you count the distortions of history liberally sprinkled throughout Sondheim's lyrics and John Weidman's book.
The motives behind these disfigurements make for an interesting study at 2424 N. Davidson St. In the opening tableau, where nearly all the assassins gather and pick up their guns, the sardonic point of "Everybody's Got the Right" is clear. Though CAST director Charles LaBorde and set designer James Edward Burns have changed the scene from an imaginary carnival to "a pawnshop at the gates of Hell," the proprietor is still hawking the prospect of shooting a president as a panacea for weakness, poverty, despair and not getting the girl. Only now, it isn't about responding to a carny barker's taunts and grasping at the brass ring. No, it's as simple as ambling over to your local pharmacy and picking up your cure du jour.
Grisly as this whole subject may be, Sondheim signals early on that there will be moments of levity. When Reagan assailant John Hinckley and Garfield murderer John Guiteau quarrel about their places in line, our Proprietor interjects "Watch it now, no violence!" with mock sanctimony. But later on, Weidman toys with history in an entirely different fashion. Instead of going after Gerald Ford some 17 days apart in different California cities, Charles Manson apostle Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and five-time divorcee Sarah Jane Moore are now united as unlikely co-conspirators — and a bit of a comedy team.
Perhaps necessity was the mother of this conflation, skirting the danger of allotting Ford too much time. And maybe, succumbing to their own carnival concept, Sondheim and Weidman decided to make the unsuccessful plotters more clownish. Byck is always presented in a Santa Claus outfit, so feminists can rest assured that women aren't the only bunglers. But you have to wonder whether such a mocking approach would have been applied to Byck's hijacking scheme if Assassins had been written after 9/11.
With LaBorde wisely reveling in the variety bestowed upon this rogues' gallery instead of trying to mute it, the interval between the arresting opening and the onset of Lee Harvey Oswald isn't quite as tedious as I thought it was when Theatre Charlotte produced this show — with an excellent cast — in 1994. The more intimate contours at CAST help to dispel some of the coolness that hovered over the Queens Road effort, particularly during Act 1 before a monsoon hit NoDa and tattooed the 2424 roof.
Beginning with Peter Basone's local debut as the pawnshop Proprietor and Ryan Deal as the Balladeer who mocks John Wilkes Booth's presumptions of martyrdom, our principals all seem to have spent their entire lives on Burns' squalid set. All the title characters bristle with their own eccentricities — American individuality and exceptionalism are part of their pathology, right? — yet they can blend into a horrific chorus in an instant.
Booth is their inspiration, their avatar, and Samuel Crawford endows him with a steely power you wouldn't have thought he was capable of even if you had seen his fine work in 33 Variations or When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder. He dominates the stage every time he appears, as he should. Scott C. Reynolds is far more salt-of-the-earth than we're accustomed to as Czolgosz, William McKinley's doom; while Daniel O'Sullivan brings all the fragility to Guiteau that we saw last year in his portrayal of cub reporter Skeets in Floyd Collins, CAST's first venture into musicals — meshed with a thick layer of combustible paranoia.
Dictating a message to Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim's collaborator in West Side Story, Chris Sepulveda has no trouble with the comic relief of Byck in his Santa suit. Alex Gagne is appropriately disoriented as Giuseppe Zangara, the would-be assassin of FDR, and Wm. Daniel Hoffman nicely embodies the lumpish ineffectuality of Hinckley. But all these losers are upstaged by the trigger-happy comedy duo of Katie Riley as the crazed "Squeaky" and Meredith Westbrooks Owen as the frumpy Sarah Jane. The lagniappe with the Colonel Sanders tub and the pet dog is simply priceless.
Smallish and soft as Josh Lucero appears to be as Oswald, he turns out to be an inspired casting choice by LaBorde, for these inaccuracies effectively underscore the ordinariness of the JFK assassin. Hampered by last Friday's torrential downpour, the scene at the Dallas Book Depository was still the most riveting of the night as Oswald and Booth faced off, with the fate of 20th Century America hanging in the balance. If you've never seen Assassins before, you don't want to miss this climax. And you want to make sure the weather forecast is for clear skies. Like that sunny day in Dealey Plaza.