Killing grounds

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  July 15, 2008

As he slowly pulls away an American flag draping a collection of guns, the characters slowly approach: God-driven Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau; enraged factory worker Leon Czolgosz, who shot President McKinley; dyspeptic Giuseppe Zangara, who tried but failed to kill president-elect Franklin Roosevelt; sad-sack Samuel Byck, whose plan (confided on tapes addressed to the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Jonas Salk) was to crash a 747 into the Nixon White House; insane John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Reagan to woo Jodi Foster; and the female gang that couldn’t shoot straight, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, both of whom made bumbling attempts on the life of Gerald Ford. Finally, there’s that “pioneer” among presidential assassins, John Wilkes Booth, the subject of singing narrator the Balladeer’s first number; having killed himself in a barn in Virginia, he pops up throughout the show like some seductive recruiter, urging his fellow shooters to make their marks.

As always, Sondheim’s score is ingenious, incorporating into its dissonant melodies bits and pieces of Americana from John Philip Sousa to “Hail to the Chief.” “The Ballad of Guiteau” combines a zippy spiritual with a ragtime cakewalk. Fromme and Hinckley, crooning to photos of Charles Manson and Foster respectively, join forces on a ’70s-style pop song that might have sprung from the pen of Carole King. The chilling “Gun Song,” on the other hand, could have sprung only from the composer of Sweeney Todd.

Among the Company One performers, Nik Walker brings some sweet pipes to the Balladeer. McCaela Donovan and Elizabeth Rimar are aptly amusing as ditzy incompetents Fromme and Moore. David DaCosta, as Booth, and Ed Hoopman, as Czolgosz, boast the strongest voices. Alas, the imposing DaCosta has been encouraged to overact, as has Jonathan Popp as the pushed and pulled Oswald. Then again, by the time the production reaches the book depository, there’s nowhere to go but over the top.

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