Stephen Sondheim has become synonymous with musical theater in the way Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (who happened to be a mentor and father figure to Sondheim) have. A Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, Oscar, Grammy, Olivier, and Drama Desk Award winner, Sondheim's work still inspires and is on display in Old Town as Cygnet Theatre continues their 2012-2013 season with "Assassins" running through Apr. 28.
At times celebratory, at times somber, and almost schizophrenic throughout, this musical mirrors the manic and unstable minds of the very people it explores, infamous assassins and would-be assassins throughout history. From successful attempts by John Wilkes Booth to unsuccessful attempts by John Hinkley Jr., "Assassins" has moments of brilliance and remnants of classic Sondheim but is mostly a discombobulated, frantic scurry to get to a point that becomes suddenly apparent two-thirds of the way through the production.
Unsurprisingly the original was not an award winner (although the revival almost a decade ago took home some Best Revival honors) though this rendition has some very redeeming qualities.
Among those are outstanding performances by Braxton Molinaro as Booth who transforms this notorious murderer so quickly from friend to foe it's almost unsettling. Jacob Caltrider as Lee Harvey Oswald portrays the conflict and deep-seeded anger of this most ill famed assassin with equal parts anguish and ambition.
Sean Murray, artistic director of Cygnet, helms this production and manages to portray the frenetic chorus of fame-seeking stories in a manner befitting such ghastly historical figures. Though not much could be done to the material provided, Murray, along with another cast of behind-the-scenes talent, manages to pull off a very technically sound and well-executed production.
An intriguing set design (conceived originally for the Broadway premiere) by Ryan Grossheim blends an almost carnival-like atmosphere with the backdrop of a shooting gallery. Shirley Pierson's costuming helped bring a sense of realism to the characters on stage and thoughtfully pieced together ensembles that are reminiscent of prevalent pop culture images that make many of these real-life people easily recognizable.
Also of note is Peter Herman's wig and make-up design that help take this show, and these characters, one step closer to believability.
Sondheim's "Assassins" is an atypical but riveting look into the mind of these high-profile murderers. Indeed there has to be a proverbial screw loose to cause one to even consider killing another human being, let alone a president or high-profile figure, and this show works up a cacophony of crazy which is disconcerting, confusing, and altogether intriguing.
A stellar undertaking for such a chaotic and lack-luster show, Cygnet handles this Sondheim anomaly so well it's still worth a look and should create plenty of excitement for a Sondheim jewel in "Company" which opens Cygnet's 2013-14 season in July.
"Assassins" runs through April 28 at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, in Old Town San Diego. For info or tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit www.cygnettheatre.org.