'Assassins' is a dark history of American domestic terrorism

Center: Tyler Michaels as Lee Harvey Oswald.

Center: Tyler Michaels as Lee Harvey Oswald. Dan Norman Photography

In the wake of yet another devastating school shooting, Assassins feels like a musical about, more than anything else, guns.


The Ritz Theater

Promising the ability for any old schmuck to end a life and change history with the twitch of a finger, guns tempted Stephen Sondheim's twisted subjects across two centuries of American life, and their insidious power has only increased since the show's 1990 debut.

Assassins, one of the darkest and least conventional musicals in Broadway history, takes place in a fantasy carnival where nine men and women who have plotted to kill presidents — from Lincoln to Reagan — gather and share their stories. With a book by John Weidman, the show depicts the assassins (or would-be assassins) as desperate souls who listened to the carnival barkers in their heads. Shoot the target, win perpetual notoriety.

To heighten the effect, Theater Latté Da is opening the Ritz Theater an hour before each performance. Ticket-holders can step onstage and play free carnival games (ring toss, balloon pop) for a chance to win prizes. It's worth arriving early enough to join in, but make sure you also leave time to hit the john: once the show starts, you're settling in for 100-plus minutes with no intermission.

The production, directed by Peter Rothstein with set design by Eli Sherlock, is further demonstration of how comfortably Latté Da has settled in at the Ritz. Every seat is close enough for eye contact with the actors, but there's enough room to build an expansive onstage world: in this case, a semi-circular scaffold adorned with campaign posters. At such close range, a pristine attention to detail is gratifyingly apparent, and some shocking surprises reveal themselves over the course of the show.

The assassins' stories are variations on a theme, but Rothstein's production is acutely sensitive to the musical's subtly shifting tones, ensuring the desperate characters emerge with specificity. Evan Tyler Wilson's quietly delusional John Hinckley shares a stage with the hopping-mad Charles Guiteau (Benjamin Dutcher), who assassinated President Garfield. Tyler Michaels, perfectly cast, serves as a sardonic Balladeer before emerging as a despairing, hesitant Lee Harvey Oswald.

In a program note, Rothstein writes that his decision to stage Assassins in 2018 was inspired in part by "the anger, hatred, and violence surrounding this presidency." Trump, however, has persistently incited those sentiments with extraordinarily inflammatory statements and actions. The presidents in Assassins are largely ciphers, mere symbols of power — to all but John Wilkes Booth (Dieter Bierbrauer), who enumerates his grievances with Lincoln in his early ballad, the show's best-known song.

As this parade of angry white men (along with two women who tried to shoot President Ford) goes by, all lamenting that they're misunderstood and underappreciated, Assassins becomes an exploration of domestic terrorism. It's a powerful and provocative statement, though its skirting of race and gender is an omission that gapes wide during an era when our leadership demonizes immigrants from "shithole countries" while pointedly ignoring history's warnings about the homegrown killers who keep giving us the same old song and dance.


Ritz Theater
612-339-3003; through March 18