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This new production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 work is nothing if not well-timed. Billy Pacholski, the producer and director of the independent revival, was smart to predict 18 months ago how resonant the musical fantasia on presidential assassins both attempted and successful would prove in the weeks leading up to this year’s election. The rhetoric that Sondheim and Weidman supply for the killers in attempting to puzzle out their motives matches the suspicions and frustrations of activists and voters on all sides today; when Sam Byck, who plotted to kill Richard Nixon, rails against oil prices and outsourcing, you wonder at the parallels. And in Pacholski’s intimate, three-quarter-round staging at the Viaduct, Sondheim’s Americana pastiches are well performed by the youngish, refreshingly un-miked cast.
All the more of a shame, then, that Pacholski makes so many other missteps. The production campaigns early and often for broad laughs, training the audience to expect comedy throughout. Thus, when things should get breathless—when James Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau, gives his gallows speech, or when John Wilkes Booth encourages Lee Harvey Oswald to move his little finger—many viewers on opening night were still giggling.
The director also eliminates the play’s dreamlike shooting-gallery setting, making that meeting between Oswald and Booth, and every other fantasy encounter among the assassins, feel unsupported. We’re adrift in an amorphous limbo set against projection designer Frank Mares’s endlessly animated screen savers. Most damaging of all, Pacholski rearranges the order of the songs, mucking up the emotional arc. This production isn’t totally flatlining, but it’s severely wounded.