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Babcock's 'Assassins' hits the bull's-eye

Sondheim musical is an insightful blend of horror and humor

Nicholas Dunn, left, Sean Kazarian, Thomas Marcus and Hannah Stone star in Babcock Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins."
Nicholas Dunn, left, Sean Kazarian, Thomas Marcus and Hannah Stone star in Babcock Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins."
Brett Thelin, Lost Images

ASSASSINS, Babcock Theatre, University of Utah, through Nov. 20 (581-7100). Running time: one hour, 45 minutes (no intermission).

Three years after he created "Into the Woods," Stephen Sondheim (with collaborator John Wiedman) turned from fanciful horror to real-life horror, with the help of historical figures in "Assassins."

Blending horror and humor, "Assassins" looks at nine people who were driven to assassinate four presidents (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy) and attempted to kill four others (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan).

Rarely produced, the University of Utah Department of Theatre — which even more rarely produces musicals — has taken on a gutsy project.

Directed by Sarah Shippobotham, the play works very well because, instead of attempting to cast well-trained singers, she has an ensemble of actors whose singing skills, for the most part, aren't all that great.

This makes for a production that is more realistic and gritty. (Sondheim's music and lyrics, too, aren't particularly majestic, soaring tunes.)

The setting is a seedy-carnival shooting gallery, where a sideshow barker invites disenfranchised Americans to " . . . kill the Prez! Win a prize!"

The all-student cast is more than up to the task of portraying a group of angry, disturbed citizens who violently lash out at society.

Thomas Marcus is the Proprietor, a sort of demented ringmaster, who prods the others into taking political problems into their own hands. The narrative is moved along by a guitar-strumming Balladeer (a fine performance by Benjamin T. Brinton — who also plays Lee Harvey Oswald near the end of the show).

The production is book-ended by John Wilkes Booth (Nicholas Dunn) and Oswald. The other assassins (or would-be assassins) drift in and out of the action out of sequence.

Charles Guiteau (Sean Kazarian), hung in 1882 for slaying Garfield, surfaces sometime in the mid-1970s, lecherously attempting to teach bumbling Sara Jane Moore (Kelsie Jepsen) how to fire a gun. He's not a good teacher, apparently; she missed hitting Ford on Sept. 22, 1975.

Leon Czolgosz (Jesse Dornan), inspired by and infatuated with anarchist Emma Goldman (Khristal Jeremy Curtis), killed McKinley in 1901 in Buffalo, N.Y.

Among the cleverest bits is Giuseppe Zangara (Nicholas Bayne) attempting to kill FDR in Miami, after which five bystanders all take credit for thwarting the crime in "How I Saved Roosevelt."

There are also insightful looks at off-the-wall Samuel Byck (Richard Wall), who planned to crash a hijacked 747 into the White House to kill Nixon after picketing in a Santa Claus suit, and John Hinckley (Ehren Remal) and his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, singing a duet — "Unworthy of Your Love" — with Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Hannah Stone), a dedicated disciple of Charles Manson.

There is heightened drama toward the end when all of the previous perpetrators gather on the fifth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald is contemplating suicide, then is cajoled into assassinating President Kennedy instead — validating all of the others' "heroic" actions in the process.

Jeffery Prices' musical direction, featuring an excellent three-piece combo, is first rate.

Sensitivity rating: Considerable adult language, violence and gunfire. Not for younger audiences.