Stepping Out

Los Altos Stage Company's 'Assassins' hits target with dark humor


Richard Mayer/Special to the Town Crier
Los Altos Stage Company’s production of “Assassins” stars, from left, Chase Campbell as John Wilkes Booth, Ken Boswell as Charles Guiteau, and Andy Cooperfauss as Leon Czolgosz.

While “Assassins” opens with a number that promises “everybody’s got the right to be happy,” the characters in the Stephen Sondheim musical are anything but.

The Los Altos Stage Company production examines the lives of nine individuals who assassinated – or attempted to assassinate – a president of the United States. Despite the serious subject matter, the humor is dark and delightful. Those interested in politics and history should especially enjoy the show.

Winner of five Tony Awards, “Assassins” is – to quote the stage company – “part vaudeville extravaganza and part exposé, with a Sondheim score that reveals uneasy truths about the American dream.”

The audience is introduced to the assassins throughout the show, beginning with “pioneer” John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln and ending with the infamous scene on the Grassy Knoll, each assassin attempting to make his or her lasting mark on history.

The show emphasizes the pull between good and evil, represented through two narrative characters – the Proprietor and the Balladeer. The Balladeer, portrayed masterfully by Brian Palac, often highlights the pointlessness of the assassins’ actions. The Proprietor, played by David Murphy, serves to encourage the assassins, promising them happiness and notoriety for their acts.

I saw “Assassins” on Broadway during its initial run in 2004. Seeing it on the small Bus Barn stage brought me that much closer to the myriad emotions expressed on stage. The production can be jarring at times – be forewarned that there is a lot of stage play with guns.

The lighting of the production was outstanding, integrated into the different musical numbers in a natural way that helped with transitions and added a dramatic flair.

My favorite scene is “The Ballad of Guiteau,” which chronicles the consequences of Charles Guiteau’s assassination of President James Garfield. It highlights an exaggerated version of Guiteau’s poem “I am Going to the Lordy,” which he wrote and read on the day of his execution at the gallows. As the Balladeer chronicles Guiteau’s life, trial and execution, Guiteau chimes in with lines of his poem.

“I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad,” Guiteau exclaims. “I have unified my party, I have saved my country. I shall be remembered.”

Ken Boswell portrays the comical insanity of Guiteau perfectly and, with a jig, underscores his hanging with the dark humor that runs throughout the production.

While all of the characters portrayed in “Assassins” are from the past two centuries, the themes ring true in current-day politics. Drawing parallels to politicians’ pursuit of infamy makes the Los Altos Stage Company production thought-provoking entertainment that should appeal to a wide range of theatergoers.

Performances of “Assassins” are slated 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 25 at Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.

Tickets are $18-$36.

For tickets and more information, call 941-0551 or visit losaltosstage.org.

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