WATERTOWN — There’s an eerie timeliness to New Repertory Theatre’s taut, compelling production of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical “Assassins,’’ arriving as it does amid disquieting questions about the basic competence of the agency charged with protecting the president of the United States.
Even before a host of startling security lapses by the Secret Service came to light, the August death of former White House press secretary James Brady reminded us of the lasting toll taken by presidential assassinations, or, in this case, an attempt. Brady’s death was ruled a homicide fully 33 years after he was wounded when John Hinckley Jr. tried to kill Ronald Reagan in the hope of impressing Jodie Foster.
“Assassins’’ trades on the fact that the violent death of a president is such a uniquely traumatic civic event that it echoes down the years, and can even partly define a generation. The question “Where were you when you heard JFK had been shot?’’ long ago entered the realm of cliché, so incessantly was it asked of one another by baby boomers, now well into middle age.
Hinckley is a character in “Assassins,’’ and so is Lee Harvey Oswald, along with John Wilkes Booth, the granddaddy of all presidential assassins. They are joined by a motley band that ranges from Charles Guiteau, who killed President Garfield in 1881, to Lynette “Squeaky’’ Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Ford in 1975.
Under the perceptive direction of Jim Petosa, “Assassins’’ presents them all as members of the same lethal fraternity, often onstage together, staring or grinning from the periphery as one of them takes his or her turn in the spotlight. They’re pursuing an upside-down version of the American Dream, articulated in double-edged songs like “Another National Anthem’’ and “Everybody’s Got the Right.’’
As in Lyric Stage Company’s production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,’’ Sondheim’s genius for entering into the psyche and point of view of even the most deranged characters is on display in this revue-style musical, which premiered in 1990. The master had a better-than-usual collaborator in Weidman, whose script cleverly plays with the idea of American history as a gaudy carnival while avoiding the too-much-exposition trap of the bio-play.
While the protagonists in “Assassins’’ operate from different motives, they are united by an unhinged desire to leave their marks, to inscribe their signatures on the world. Kamilla Kurmanbekova’s set translates that legacy into visual form with a deep-hued, flag-shaped backdrop that is riddled with bullet holes. It’s a fitting framework for the New Rep production, because Sondheim and Weidman home in on the gun culture — our national sickness — as a factor that dovetails all too neatly with the individual pathologies of the would-be killers.
Indeed, from the opening number, at the end of which virtually every member of the New Rep ensemble is equipped with a gun, to the finale, when we get a sense of what it’s like to have those weapons pointed in our direction, “Assassins’’ grimly underscores the terrifying ease with which the unthinkable can occur in a nation where four sitting presidents have been slain and numerous others have been targets. The production’s chilling essence is summed up in a line from “Gun Song’’: “And all you have to do/ Is move your little finger/ Move your little finger and/ You can change the world.’’
Yet the musical is also laced with mordant humor, adding up to a tricky tonal balance that Petosa adroitly finesses while mostly moving the production briskly through its intermissionless 105 minutes.
The cast is uniformly strong. It includes Benjamin Evett as the gun-dispensing Proprietor, attired like a disreputable Uncle Sam as he gleefully sets events in motion; Mark Linehan, conveying both actor-ish panache and icy, self-justifying fanaticism as Booth; Evan Gambardella, superb as both the Balladeer and as Oswald; McCaela Donovan as the glassy-eyed Fromme, scarily besotted with Charles Manson; and Patrick Varner as Hinckley. Donovan and Varner team up for a spooky duet on “Unworthy of Your Love,’’ whose combination of a dreamlike melody and unsettling lyrics make it quite possibly the most deliberately creepy love song ever written.
Fine performances are also turned in by Peter S. Adams as Samuel Byck, who tried to hijack a plane, intending to crash it into the White House and kill Richard Nixon; Harrison Bryan as Giuseppe Zangara, who shot at president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt, mortally wounding Chicago mayor Anton Cermak in the process; Paula Langton as Sara Jane Moore, who tried to kill Ford shortly after Fromme’s attempt; Brad Daniel Peloquin as Guiteau, slayer of Garfield; and Kevin Patrick Martin as Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley.
As each of them stakes his or her claim to fame in “Assassins,’’ one is left shaking one’s head at how perilous a task it has been to lead our country — and hoping against hope there will not be any new chapters of this particular story.