Zoetic Stage aims for a hit with ‘Assassins’

Photo by Justin Namon

Successful and would-be presidential assassins may seem like not-so-promising subject matter for a piece of musical theater.

But once you know that the composer is Stephen Sondheim, the man who made a hit of Sweeney Todd (about a murderous barber and the entrepreneurial landlady who turned his victims into meat pies), the artistic possibilities of Assassins instantly seem richer.

Miami’s Carbonell Award-winning Zoetic Stage, now just over 3 years old, has chosen Assassins as its first musical. Opening this weekend 1/31 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts (the Arsht is co-producing the show), Assassins is also the first Broadway-tested musical to be done in the center’s more intimate black box space.

Though Assassins debuted Off-Broadway at the end of 1990, a starry Broadway production in 2004 stirred renewed interest in a piece that imagines nine successful and failed assassins — from original presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth to Jodie Foster-wooing John Hinckley — crossing paths in a surreal carnival shooting gallery. Boca Raton’s Slow Burn Theatre, which has done several Sondheim shows, tackled Assassins the spring before Zoetic debuted in late 2010.

But as Stuart Meltzer, Zoetic’s artistic director, observes, “Miami audiences don’t have many opportunities to see Sondheim.”

Scott Shiller, the Arsht’s executive vice president, is happy Zoetic chose Assassins as its first musical and hopes there will be more to come.

“Stuart jumps directly into the deep end. Sondheim has a very sophisticated style. Stuart understands it and can dissect it,” Shiller says. “We want the work we produce together to have the highest common denominator.”

Working with musical director Caryl Fantel, Meltzer has assembled a South Florida-based cast whose vocal firepower is formidable. Four are nominees for the upcoming Carbonell Awards, for work they did in 2013. Nicholas Richberg plays Abraham Lincoln’s assassin Booth; Nick Duckart is William McKinley’s assassin Leon Czolgosz; Gabriel Zenone plays James Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau, and Clay Cartland is would-be Ronald Reagan assassin Hinckley (a role he also played in the Slow Burn production).

Henry Gainza plays Giuseppe Zangara, who tried to shoot president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt at Miami’s Bayfront Park and wound up killing Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead. Irene Adjan portrays a wacky Sara Jane Moore, and Lindsey Forgey is Charles Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme; both women tried unsuccessfully to kill Gerald Ford. Chaz Mena is Samuel Byck, who wanted to fly a hijacked plane into the White House to kill Richard Nixon. And Chris Crawford plays John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald — who is, as Sondheim and Weidman see it, heavily influenced by the other assassins.

The focus in Assassins isn’t on villifying or excusing its real-life characters. The musical explores a number of issues, including the shattering of the American dream, the easy availability of guns, and the twisted lust for fame that can lead to murder and infamy.

“We’re stuck in complacency. These are lives being taken away daily. There’s a sickness, something corroding going on, and it has to do with this violence,” Meltzer says. “A show like Assassins reflects that back to audiences.”

“All the characters in this musical want to be seen. It looks at what they did, why they did it, their reasoning, whether they were mentally ill or not. It asks if they were overwhelmed or pushed to their limits,” Gainza says. “It stimulates more intellectual conversation than most musicals.”

Zenone feels that the evolution of the country since Assassins was created makes the musical even timelier.

“Everybody has the option of pursuing the American dream, but not everybody gets it,” he says. “Now we have [a shrinking] middle class and a lot of guns. How’s that going to work out? Theater brings up these questions.”

The music in Assassins has great variety, with Sondheim incorporating popular styles from the different eras in which the characters lived. This particular score includes dark music reminiscent of Sweeney Todd, a barbershop quartet number, a beautiful if creepy pop ballad and more. Mena describes the music as “a wire twisted from different strands” and says, “If I were to do this for a year or more, I’d still be learning from it.”

As with actors everywhere who tackle Sondheim’s work, the accomplished musical theater performers in the Miami cast are relishing the challenge of Assassins. So is musical director Fantyl.

“I told the cast to expect the unexpected. When you find a pattern, he breaks it. Sondheim’s work is written for actors who sing. You ask, ‘What is the acting goal?’ The music always supports that,” she says.

Crawford, who has played two different roles in Sondheim’s Into the Woods and appeared in West Side Story (Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music), finds the composer’s work unique.

“He writes everything from staccato rhythms to lush melodies. But he’s like Shakespeare. He does the work for you. You just have to listen to what he wrote,” Crawford says.

Some of Sondheim’s work, however, is just plain difficult. In playing Zangara, Gainza has to speak and sing with an Italian accent, deliver a monologue in Italian and sing at the highest end of his register. But that’s not all.

“The intervals in Sondheim’s melodies aren’t what you’d expect,” Gainza says. “I have to sing high the whole time while I’m seated on the electric chair, and singing while you’re seated is a challenge. Then I have to hold a high A — and I get electrocuted on the final note.”