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‘Assassins’ loses some of its killer instinct at Viaduct Theater

KevWebb stars as John Wilkes Booth 'Assassins' Viaduct Theatre. | PHOTO BY DAVID TURNER

Kevin Webb stars as John Wilkes Booth in "Assassins" at the Viaduct Theatre. | PHOTO BY DAVID TURNER

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When: Through Nov. 10

Where: Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western

Tickets: $45; $100 election night (Nov. 6)

Information: (312) 212-3470;

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Updated: November 17, 2012 6:11AM

It’s usually an ominous sign when the producer and the director of any given show are the same person. Like politics, theater generally requires a certain separation of powers. When one person is handling essentially everything, a degree of healthy collaborative spirit tends to go missing.

In both directing and producing Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” now at the Viaduct Theater, Billy Pacholski takes on an especially tricky bit of business. The cutting neo-vaudevillian romp presents U.S. history’s arch villains — Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley among them — in a jarringly empathetic light. You may find the deeds of our country’s most infamous miscreants monstrous, but there’s no denying the universal humanity that courses through the veins of “Assassins”’ misfit doers.

In Pacholski’s staging, that humanity rings with some clarity, as does the blackly humorous undertone that permeates the show. The production intermittently succeeds in creating a defiant portrait of America the not-so Beautiful, a society where there’s a dark underside to the National Anthem. Part of the problem is Pacholski’s insistence that “Assassins” is a “love story.” No, it’s not. To impose that concept on the show is to invite the sort of troubled jumble that all the shooting range practice sessions in the world can’t smooth over. (And this cast has had significant fire-arms training.)

That said, there are some strong performances in this earnest young cast, and the show itself (with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by John Weidman) is intensified by the real-life backdrop of an acrimonious election season.

The production is anchored by a trio of actors, starting with Kevin Webb as John Wilkes Booth. It’s almost shocking how much Webb looks as if he just stepped out of a mid-19th century daguerreotype. With a feverish affect that hints at both despair and grandiosity, he’s the corporeal embodiment of a tortured soul. The second lynchpin to “Assassins” is Sam Button-Harrison as the Balladeer, a narrator who eventually becomes a volatile part of the story he’s telling. Harrison reads a bit too innocent and idealistic to completely carry the depths of rage and unhappiness that define his end-game transition from narrator to killer, but he sounds terrific and radiates a charisma throughout. Also notable is Edward Fraim who brings an unsettlingly unhinged, impish appeal to Charles Guiteau, assassin of President James Garfield.

Where “Assassins” stumbles is in Pacholski’s failure to draw similarly strong performances from the balance of his cast, most of whom don’t seem to have a solid grasp on the twisted depths of their characters. With solid musical direction from Robert Ollis, the group does justice to the score. But for “Assassins” to truly resonate, the ensemble needs to dig far deeper.

Catey Sullivan is a local free-lance writer.

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