A strong mix of humor, horror, and ideology, this stygian musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman erupts as a fascinating study of the minds of the disenfranchised, tortured individuals who took bold action against American presidents. For some it was political, for others an emotional catharsis. And we can only imagine, as Sondheim and Weidman have, the depths of their commitment to their crusades or their needs to be recognized.
Danila Korogodsky's huge scaffolded set is nearly the star of the production. It allows the cast to move fluidly through time and space, as the dialogue plays out the question "Why did you do it?" The nature of Sondheim's complex score matches the complicated rationalizations of the characters. Sondheim borrows familiar works from the American canon -- from folk music to John Philip Sousa.
Joanne Gordon's taut direction brings together the Weltanschauung of these criminals with a passionate rendering. Intermission-free, the two hours allow no respite from a vigorous examination of the American dream. Jonathan Talberg's music direction and Jarod P. Sheahan's piano accompaniment unite the commanding ensemble. From John Wilkes Booth (the nuanced Jeff Paul) to a bewildered Lee Harvey Oswald (Scott Fielding), the infamous and not-so-famous deliver Weidman and Sondheim's perceptions of society's fringes. That the vignettes don't always present a cohesive whole, or that Sondheim's ever-present cynicism lurks in every lyric, doesn't take away from the pleasure of listening to good singers and actors artfully bringing characters to life.
A comedic scene between the accomplished Beth Froehlich and Debbie McLeod as Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore on drugs -- would-be assassins of Gerald Ford -- seems much too long and dopey, no pun intended. Far more interesting is the anguish of characters whose only redemption is to commit a grievous act of protest.
It's hard to single out individual performers, because the ensemble has a unity of excellence and spirit that makes the show ignite. They take Sondheim's uneasy work and give it a vitality that forgives the play's quirks.
Presented by California Repertory Company at the National Guard Armory,
854 E. Seventh St., Long Beach.
Tue.-Thu. 7 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. (Also Sat. 2 p.m. Oct. 13-20.) Sep. 28-Oct. 20.
(562) 985-5526. www.calrep.org.