A review of Steven Sondheim’s “Assassins,” featuring portrayals of the eight successful and failed U.S. presidential assassins. At ACT through May 8.

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When it debuted Off Broadway in 1990, “Assassins” was criticized as glibly sensational, offensive, sketchy.

The show is now ranked among Stephen Sondheim’s best, which says much about where the country has drifted, and how American theater has changed. In this volatile and crass American political season, the scathing, incisive and brutally entertaining Sondheim-John Weidman musical hits an inflamed nerve.

A powerful new ACT Theatre-5th Avenue Theatre production, now on at ACT, begins with an opportune jolt: a sneering carnival barker hands out guns like cotton candy to some unhinged-looking people. (Of course, without background checks.)



by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. Through May 8 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $20-$74 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

Sondheim’s blistering music and lyrics and Weidman’s sardonic book inform and divert us, with portrayals of eight successful and failed U.S. presidential assassins, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.

In a Brechtian vaudeville revue format, with songs, skits and ravings, the gunmen (and women) form a time-traveling affinity group under the leadership of Louis Hobson’s commanding Booth.

That barker, called the Proprietor (Nick DeSantis), urges them to aim big. “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” he sings. “Everybody’s got the right to dream.”

And if happiness is beyond you? And the dream a delusion? Whom to blame? Whom to kill? Drawing from a deep, pitch-black well of irony, the show presents these infamous figures as a gang of grievance in a culture that aids and abets violence.

Hiding out in a barn after slaying Abraham Lincoln, actor and Confederate sympathizer Booth proclaims himself Brutus to Lincoln’s Caesar. He goes down in flames, with a fervent ode to America’s pre-abolition, slavery-holding “greatness.”

Leon Czolgosz (a shattering Brandon O’Neill) is a pathetic, penniless immigrant worker, who imagines murdering President McKinley will spark a socialist revolution.

Frustrated, serially divorced 1970s suburbanite Sara Jane Moore (a terrific Kendra Kassebaum) takes aim at President Ford because (she said later) “it seemed a correct expression of my anger.” And waifish Fromme (Laura Griffith), an acolyte of mass murderer Charles Manson, plans to off Ford to protest environmental degradation.

Also conveyed in songs and mordant vignettes: the manic preacher-lawyer Charles Guiteau (a frighteningly giddy Rich Gray). He doesn’t get the ambassadorship he seeks, so he blows President Garfield away — and expects a big welcome in heaven after his execution.

Would-be killer of Franklin D. Roosevelt Giuseppe Angara (John Coons), Jodie Foster-fixated Reagan shooter John Hinckley (Frederick Hagreen) and Samuel Byck (Matt Wolfe), the ranting paranoid who hijacked an airplane to try and kill President Nixon, also come across as pathetic lunatic-fringers and misfits.

The intermission-less show is episodic, and Weidman’s book can get a little hokey and jokey. But director John Langs seamlessly links the vignettes, and with his impressive cast makes the miscreants more than just clowns and isolated cranks.

Particularly in Sondheim’s disarming, powerfully sung score, echoing John Philip Sousa marches, ’70s folkie ballads and Tin Pan Alley anthems, they’re seekers of a grandiose American dream — reached for but rarely achieved, politically or individually, especially by the poor, deranged, marginalized, luckless.

Weidman has noted that each real-life shooter acted on “a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed and malignant sense of entitlement” — a psychopathology that persists among today’s better-armed homicidal misfits.

“Assassins” climaxes with Booth and company urging Lee Harvey Oswald (Nathan Brockett) to distinguish his disappointing life by putting John F. Kennedy in the crosshairs.

But a number added after the show’s premiere also gives voice to the shock and grief of stunned Americans after their leaders are slain.

“Something just broke,” they sing. “Something to be mended.”