If by some chance you’ve never seen or heard of Stephen Sondheim and John 
Weidman’s Assassins, here’s what it’s about, in brief:

It’s about eight men and women who either assassinated, or attempted to 
assassinate, a United States President.

Not your usual bill of fare for a musical, is it?

And yet, despite its potentially gruesome and disturbing subject matter (and it 
is at times both gruesome and disturbing), Assassins is often funny and always 
involving, besides containing some of the most hummable tunes ever written 
by a composer not known for his “hummability.”

Since Orange County’s award-winning Chance Theatre’s announcement 
that its 2008 season would open with Assassins, Southern California Sondheim 
fans have been wondering how Wunderkind Artistic Director Oanh Nguyen 
would put his own original stamp on it.

Fans of both Sondheim and Nguyen will not be disappointed.

Never have Nguyen’s prodigious directorial talents been more evident than in 
his brilliant re-imagining of Assassins.

Start with the most radical change.  The cast has been cut from the 16 
featured in the 2004 Broadway production down to 9, the Balladeer and the 
eight Assassins. Gone are the Proprietor and the ensemble of 6, the Balladeer 
and the Assassins assuming these actors’ roles.

Next is the radical reconfiguration of the Chance stage. The audience sits on 
opposite sides of what would normally be the left and right walls, with four 
empty front row seats on either side left empty for the Assassins to sit among 
the audience at various intervals.

The stage has thus become a long, tunnel-like space separating one half of 
the audience from the other, its two extremes designed to resemble a 
shooting gallery with light bulbs flashing and bells ringing whenever an Assassin 
hits a target.

Nguyen seems to be saying with these changes that these eight men and 
women who either killed, or attempted to kill, our national leaders are at heart 
no different from any of us, and as we watch the musical unfold, we cannot 
help looking at each other at the same time as we are looking at the Assassins 
and seeing in them (and in each other) a capacity for doing the unspeakable.

Nguyen’s Assassins begins with actor Paul Kehler (whom those who have seen 
Assassins before might assume to be playing the Proprietor) singing the jaunty 
“Everybody’s Got The Right,” as the eight Assassins enter one by one and join 
in the rousing chorus. The Assassins take their front row seats, four on either side 
as Kehler transforms himself into John Wilkes Booth, his leg bandaged and 
bearing a crutch, the seated Assassins assuming the voices of characters 
usually played by the ensemble.

In a tour de force performance, Kehler is such a passionate Booth that one 
cannot help but feel for him and for his certainty that he was absolutely right 
to kill the President responsible for causing so much loss of life.  

Bob Simpson, dynamic as always in the role of the Balladeer, engages Booth in 
“The Ballad of Booth,” accusing him of only wanting attention, and of having 
inadvertently increased (in today’s idiom) Lincoln’s approval rating. “Because 
of you he now gets only raves,” taunts the Balladeer.  

The Assassins later assume the voices of onlookers to Giuseppe Zangara’s 
attempted assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this following an 
exchange representative of the sly humor in Weidman’s book. Zangara 
complains to the Balladeer that nothing seems to cure his various physical 
ailments, to which the Balladeer responds, “Have you considered shooting 
FDR?”  “Will that help?” asks a hopeful Zangara. “Well, it couldn’t hurt,” replies 
the Balladeer. (The role of Zangara is brought to intense life by an excellent 
Jara Jones, so real that it’s hard to believe this is an actor and not the genuine 

In an interesting though not entirely successful twist, Booth also becomes 
anarchist Emma Goldman, with his own southern drawl replacing Goldman’s 
Eastern European accent, a twist that might prove bewildering to some.

One of the highlights of any production of Assassins is the hilariously kooky 
conversation between crazy sexy bimbette Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and 
dorky Southern housewife Sarah Jane Moore, over a basket of Colonel 
Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken. Here, the scene is played to perfection by 
Emily Clark and Allison Appleby, who later reveal themselves to be fine singers 
as well as actress/comediennes.  

Clark returns subsequently to sing one of the most gorgeous (albeit offbeat) 
love songs in the Sondheim repertoire, “Unworthy Of Your Love” opposite 
Daniel Berlin, doing touching work as a sad and pathetic John Hinkley. 
Gorgeous and passionate acting and singing from both Clark and Berlin.

Tall, gangly David Lamoureux as Leon Czolgosz is another who totally 
disappears into his role, demonstrating a beautiful singing voice as well. 
Richard Comeau does equally fine work as Charles A. Guiteau, whose “The 
Ballad of Guiteau” combines Broadway and Negro spiritual, all the while 
Comeau’s eyes reflect the madness of his character.

Chance Theater regular Dimas Diaz dazzles as the craziest and most talkative 
Assassin of them all, Samuel Byck, who dressed as Santa Claus goes on and on 
in an extended, vulgar rant against Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon.

Those who complain that Sondheim’s melodies are too complex and atonal to 
leave the theater humming should give another listen to “Another National 
Anthem,” which sounds at times like a Jerry Herman show tune, and is 
performed in rousing fashion by the eight Assassins. Then, in one of the show’s 
most powerful and memorable scenes, the Balladeer assumes the persona of a 
suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald, goaded by John Wilkes Booth into killing John F. 
Kennedy instead of himself.  Simpson and Kehler deserve highest praise for their 
intense and committed work in this scene, which ends with the eight Assassins 
telling Oswald, “Today we are reborn through you.  With you we’re a force of 
history.”  Scary, upsetting, and powerful stuff.

Following the JFK assassination comes a song not in the original off-Broadway 
production.  In “Something Just Broke,” average Americans recall what they 
were doing at the moment they heard the devastating news from Dallas.  On 
CD, this song seems out of place in a show where all the other songs came 
from the point of view of the Assassins themselves.  Not so in Nguyen’s 
production.  Because we have already seen the Assassins take on other 
personas, it seems not at all incongruous when they become “us,” the 
witnesses, the victims.

Carmen Cortez Dominguez deserves applause for her musical direction, a fine 
example of which is “The Gun Song”’s exquisite four-part harmony, and the 
outstanding work done by Robert Hilton and Rick Heckman on keyboards, and 
Lonn Hayes on percussion.

Rarely has a set so clearly reflected a collaboration between a director and 
designer in bringing the former’s vision to life.  Joe Pew’s shooting gallery is 
outwardly simple.  Lightbulbs surround wide doors at either end of the stage, 
and with TV monitors surrounding the lights. The monitors project John 
MacDonald’s designs with images which illustrate Sondheim’s words and serve 
to set scenes. There are targets, photos of Presidents, a desert highway, and 
stacks of books representing the Texas School Book Depository where Oswald 
lay in wait. There is also one particular projection onto Lee Harvey Oswald’s t-
shirt that is a feat of brilliant inspiration on Nguyen’s part and superbly 
executed by MacDonald.

Dave Mickey’s sound and Erika C. Miller’s costumes are likewise first-rate, and 
Glenda Morgan Brown deserves credit for coaching the actors in their various 
regional and foreign accents.  

Those who have never seen a production of Assassins before are in for an 
exciting discovery at the Chance.  Those who’ve seen other productions, no 
matter how fine, are in for an even bigger treat.  With its innovations and 
surprises galore, this is the Assassins by which future productions will be 

Chance Theatre, 5552 E. La Palma Avenue, Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
February 10, 2008
Photos: Doug Catiller

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