On Broadway, timing can be everything and some shows are simply ahead of their time.
This was certainly the case with Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago.” While the current revival, launched in 1996 is Broadway’s third-longest running musical, it was only a modest success when it debuted in 1975, playing 936 performances through 1977. Two decades later, a cynical public, mesmerized by the endless tabloid coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial embraced the Prohibition-era courtroom drama.
The 1990 musical from Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, “Assassins,” currently offered by Zoetic Stage at the Arsht Center, similarly benefits from a couple of decades of poisonous political rhetoric, epitomized by the hateful backlash to the election of America’s first African-American president. The sight of protestors at anti-Obama rallies carrying semiautomatic weapons and characterizing the president as a socialist dictator of the likes of Hitler and Idi Amin vividly remind us that cold-blooded murder can be justified by a radical mind.
Sondheim and Weidman’s show presents the stories of an assemblage of historical Presidential assassins — some successful, others bumbling wannabees. John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (Garfield) and Leon Czolgosz (McKinley) are joined onstage by Giuseppe Gongora, Samuel Byck, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, respectively. (Gongora’s ill-fated attempt took place in Miami at nearby Bayfront Park.)
Set in a carnival shooting gallery and presided by a nameless proprietor who sells each character with the weapon of his or her choice, “Assassins” introduces each, in turn, to musically share their motivations — some “noble,” others just plain crazy —to commit such heinous acts. Ironically, they must work together to convince a reluctant Lee Harvey Oswald that his destiny is to kill John F. Kennedy, rather than putting a bullet in his own skull.
There are no weak performances in the large cast of 13 — the largest assembled by Zoetic — including eight Actors Equity members and thanks to deft stage direction from Stuart Meltzer.
Shane Tanner, always a strong leading man, sets the stage as the mysterious Proprietor. Nick Duckart offers a booming voice to the anarchist Czolgosz, while Gabriel Zenone’s Guiteau is daft, on a mission from God, and eager to sell copies of his book. Clay Cartland is always excellent at playing disturbed characters and his John Hinckley is certifiable.
Some of the show’s funniest moments come during the interactions between Irene Adjan and Lindsey Forgey as Sara Jane Moore and Charles Manson’s acolyte, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Let’s just say a doobie, a .38 and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken play prominent roles in the scenes.
But it is Nicholas Richberg as the actor John Wilkes Booth who stands above all, not only because the other characters revere him as their role model. Richberg’s Booth is both noble in his convictions and tortured by the critics, seeking the ultimate “part” to serve as the pinnacle of a middling career.
Sondheim’s score is whimsical, invoking images of the carnival midway while incorporating the sounds of vaudeville, gospel choruses, folk tunes, snippets of Sousa marches and, of course, the eponymous fanfare, “Hail to the Chief,” often distorted in dissonant chords that evoke the characters’ distaste.
Musical director Caryl Ginsburg Fantel capably leads a small off-stage ensemble including Andrea Gilbert, woodwinds; Greg Chance, guitar, bass, banjo; and Roy Fantel, drums/percussion. Sondheim’s music is notoriously difficult, shifting time and key signatures frequently, and Fantel and her band navigate the score flawlessly.
Michael McKeever’s flexible shooting gallery set evokes the farcical qualities of the show’s premise, accentuated by carnival lighting and dramatic effects from Ron Burns. Alberto Arroyo’s clever costume design not only helps to define each character, but allows the cast to quickly shift characters during ensemble numbers like “Something Just Broke,” the lone opportunity for societal commentary on the assassins’ acts.
In its first three seasons, Zoetic has served primarily as a vehicle to premiere new works by two of its founders, McKeever and Chris Demos-Brown, as well as showcase quirky new works. Tackling “Assassins” presented a challenge with a quirky show, challenging musical score and large cast, but big risks offer big rewards and this production now cements Zoetic’s place as one of the preeminent theater companies in South Florida.
If You Go:
Where: Zoetic Stage at the Arsht Center Carnival Studio Theatre, Miami
When: Wednesday – Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. through Feb. 23
Info: Tickets $45 at ArshtCenter.org.