WHERE New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St.
INFO $25-$125; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org
BOTTOM LINE Murderers make for surprisingly entertaining musical theater.
“Everybody’s got the right to their dreams” is a common feeling on Broadway — you could slot that line into any number of musicals through the decades. But the dreams in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” are rather . . . unusual. After all, this is a show about people who killed (or tried to kill) American presidents: The characters include the likes of John Wilkes Booth and John Hinckley, Lee Harvey Oswald and Squeaky Fromme.
The show premiered in 1990 and has lost not one whit of edge since. It may actually have extra gleam nowadays, and the audience at City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series, which is presenting this concert revival, let out knowing laughs. The most sustained guffaw on Wednesday evening was in response to “Every now and then / The country / Goes a little wrong / Every now and then / A madman’s / Bound to come along.”
The narrator-like Balladeer (Clifton Duncan) is referring to crazies with presidents in their sights, but the theatergoers appeared to have someone else in mind.
Unlike the recent staging of “Julius Caesar” featuring a Donald Trump-like leader, though, this production avoids topical references. Indeed, the show has endured because it describes an American trait that transcends eras and politics: the obsessive, narcissistic need for attention and self-fulfillment — here expressed through violence rather than, say, art or science.
Sondheim and book writer John Weidman structured the show as a series of vignettes, but the usually gifted director Anne Kauffman (Broadway’s “Marvin’s Room”) falls short in pulling them together, and the show never quite jells into an organic whole.
Yet the production is still a treat. Sondheim’s score cannily echoes the various periods represented, with nods to John Philip Sousa, Burt Bacharach and Irving Berlin, for instance. And for a show about homicidal people, “Assassins” is bitingly humorous — which won’t surprise fans of “Sweeney Todd.”
The cast mostly makes hay of the material. Steven Pasquale is a darkly charismatic Booth, the one assassin with a grand, if warped, vision of America, while Danny Wolohan delivers a pair of smashing monologues as Samuel Byck, who wanted to crash a plane on Richard Nixon’s White House. Erin Markey’s Fromme and Victoria Clark’s Sara Jane Moore, linked by their failed attempts on Gerald Ford, share deliciously funny scenes. Fromme and Steven Boyer’s Hinckley also shine in their duet “Unworthy of Your Love,” on which they sound like a twisted version of the Carpenters.
This “Assassins” may not be a classic production. But what a fun murderers’ row of musical-theater mavens it gives us.