A Twisted American Dream

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Lauren McCombs, Andrew Newton, Jason Cooper and Jordan Price.

Those who kill or attempt to kill presidents are psychotic or deluded individuals who have gone off the rails. Or are they the most patriotic Americans? CenterStage at the Jewish Community Center’s next production shows the complexities of American presidential assassins and would-be assassins and why they committed such violent acts for a twisted love of country.

“Assassins,” a Tony Award-winning musical by lyricist Stephen Sondheim and author John Weidman, runs October 27 through November 13 at the Jewish Community Center.

The one-act historical “revusical” is about the lives of nine people who assassinated or tried to assassinate the president of the United States. The writers bend the rules of time and space, taking the audience on a nightmarish roller coaster ride as the different individuals from different historical periods meet, interact and inspire each other to harrowing acts in the name of the American Dream.

With the current presidential election season, “Assassins” is more topical than ever.

“‘Assassins’ seems to be more relevant now than when it was written in 1990,” says John Leffert, CenterStage artistic director. “As the musical begins, we are met with an opening number proclaiming, ‘Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.’ It is American mythology that makes this promise to everyone. But what happens when our dreams are not attained? Someone must be responsible.”

How do you reconcile an assassin’s belief in the American myth with his or her own struggles? “Assassins” asks the question: What does it mean to be an American?

“Aren’t these the same issues facing our divided country today?” Leffert poses. “Each [assassin] believed that killing the president was going to save the country. John Wilkes Booth was avenging the South, so he believed that he was doing the most American, the most patriotic thing he could do. It doesn’t glamorize or make them heroes by any means, but it does make you perhaps look at their perspective, whatever that is.”

When he chose the piece a year ago, Leffert had no idea where the presidential election would be today, just two weeks before we choose our next president. But now the show is extra relevant.

“When they don’t achieve that happiness, all these assassins have to blame someone. Typically, it was the president that took the blame for that,” Leffert says. “If something’s going on wrong in our lives, who are we going to blame? The president. We are quick to blame someone else instead of taking responsibility for ourselves. It’s not our right to be happy – it’s our right to pursue happiness.”

Leffert reminds us that life isn’t always black and white, but that these assassins don’t see any gray area.

Despite its name, “Assassins” shouldn’t scare anyone off. There is simulated gun violence in the show, but a dark humor shines through, Leffert assures.

The meeting of these assassins takes place in a carnival warehouse, “where old carnival games go to die,” he describes. Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, bookend the play and are essentially the headliners of the group.

Even more topical, President Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. was recently released from psychiatric care, and Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme, who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford, was released in 2009. The two sing a duet in the show, “Unworthy of Your Love,” that is directed at Jodie Foster on Hinckley’s end and Charles Manson on Fromme’s.

A strong ensemble cast includes returning CenterStage stars, such as Jordan Price as John Wilkes Booth, Jennifer Poliskie as Sarah Jane Moore, Lauren McCombs as Squeaky Fromme, Andrew Newton as Lee Harvey Oswald and Jason Cooper as Samuel Byck.

CenterStage has proven its ability to take a volunteer cast and turn it into a Broadway-quality performance. The company makes dazzling sets and uses live orchestra musicians to draw the audience deep into the world of its show.

Leffert wants to remind theatergoers that the show is a political satire: “You will laugh, but you will think, too.” VT

“Assassins” runs October 27 through November 13 at CenterStage at the Jewish Community Center. For tickets, visit centerstagejcc.org or call 502.459.0660.