Abraham Lincoln wasn't the only one to have a gun pointed at him in a theater. Should you find yourself in the audience at Cygnet Theatre's Assassins, you'll have six or seven guns pointed at you—only nobody pulls the trigger.
The disconcertion is only one byproduct of this moderately subversive musical by Stephen Sondheim (with a book by John Weidman), which tells the tales of America's most notorious slayers and wouldbe slayers of chief executives, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Cygnet's Sean Murray directs a vigorous staging that intermittently shocks, amuses and explicates.
That it never finds a consistent tone is not so much the shortcoming of this production as it is of Sondheim and Weidman's original work, first produced 23 years ago. A few sequences impress and disturb on a profound level (Hinckley's twisted ode to Jodie Foster and "Squeaky" Fromme's even more twisted ode to Charlie Manson, "Unworthy of Your Love," or the other assassins' enticement of Lee Oswald to join their ranks). But Assassins careens from carnival shooting gallery to, in the case of McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz (Jason Maddy), haunted gunman of dark conviction to broad comic pratfalls (Melissa Fernandes as Fromme and Melinda Gilb as fellow Gerald Ford stalker Sara Jane Moore).
It's not until the last half-hour, when the sights are set on Oswald (Jacob Caltrider) and that November day in Dallas that Assassins crystallizes. The post-assassination "Something Just Broke" brings heartache to what had been a more calculated narrative bent on reminding us that behind every assassin's malevolence is a troubled or misguided human being. The show's signature tune, after all, is the Assassins ensemble's "Everybody's Got the Right (to be Happy)."
Assassins' deft cast also includes Braxton Molinaro as the stentorian Booth and Kurt Norby, who's eerily moving as Hinckley. The invaluable Sandy Campbell is here, too, though other than a brief turn as immigrant anarchist Emma Goldman, she doesn't get enough to do.
Be prepared: Assassins is a lengthy-one-act musical. The hanging of Garfield killer Charles Guiteau (Carr) would've made a dramatic halfway pause, but the show goes on. No rest for the armed and deadly.
Assassins runs through April 28 at the Old Town Theatre. $34-$59. cygnettheatre.com
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler: This comedy shows us the fate of Hedda Gabler and other literary figures after we last left them. Opens March 28 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. diversionary.org
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: A convict cons his way into a mental institution to avoid prison and tangles with a domineering nurse. Currently in previews, it opens March 30 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
The Tempest: Shakespeare's classic comedy, set on a magical island presided over by the iconic Prospero. Opens March 29 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido. patioplayhouse.com
The Mountaintop: In a fictional version of events, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spends his last night among the living in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it runs through March 31 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sdrep.org
Born Yesterday: A corrupt businessman hires a reporter to tutor his showgirl mistress in the ways of Washington, D.C., and she learns a little too much for his own good. Through April 7 at Avo Playhouse in Vista. moonlightstage.com
The Fox on the Fairway: In what sounds like Caddy Shack lite, a country-club president is in danger of losing a bet when his ace golfer defects to the opposing team and his replacement becomes unhinged over a lost engagement ring. Through April 7 at Broadway Theatre in Vista. broadwayvista.com
The Psychic: In this comedy, a struggling writer starts giving psychic readings in order to pay the rent and entangles himself in a murder mystery. Presented by Different Stages, it runs through April 13 at The Swedenborgian Hall in University Heights. differentstages.biz
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday: A man can't seem to get over the loss of his wife, who accidentally drowned. Now he's talking with her during nighttime beach walks and neglecting his daughter. Through April 13 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder: In this musical comedy set in Edwardian England, a man in need of treasure to win the love of a woman learns he's a distant heir to a fortune and begins murdering his way to the top of the family food chain. Through April 14 on The Old Globe Theatre's Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Grey Gardens: Musical based on a documentary of the same name about Big Edie and Little Edie—Jackie Kennedy Onassis' aunt and cousin—and their descent from an opulent lifestyle. Presented by Ion Theatre Company, it runs through April 20 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
Accomplice San Diego: A different kind of theater happening—part play, part game—courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse's Without Walls program: Audience members arrive in Little Italy and experience the play around them as they walk through the neighborhood and respond to clues provided to them. Runs through April 21. Find details at lajollaplayhouse.org.
An Inspector Calls: A detective arrives at the home of a wealthy businessman and politician and grills each member of the family about a young woman's death. Through April 21 at Scripps Ranch Theatre. scrippsranchtheatre.org
Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House: Director Kirsten Brandt and translator Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey present a new adaptation of the Norwegian playwright's famed feminist work. Through April 21 in The Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Assassins: A carnival shooting gallery is the starting point for a musical about nine killers or would-be-killers of U.S. presidents. Presented by Cygnet Theatre, it runs through April 28 at The Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.com
Damien: In a one-actor production, Robert Smyth reprises his role as a Belgian-priest who ministered to people suffering from leprosy on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Through May 5 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net