In an interview a couple of years ago, Stephen Sondheim stated that “what works now are musicals that are easy to take; audiences don’t want to be challenged.” Sondheim, who turned 80 this year and is now musical theatre’s sage, has spent a lifetime challenging audiences in one way or another, whether with his through-composed, chromatic tunes or his idiosyncratic choice of subject matter. Murderous barbers notwithstanding, no Sondheim musical is more challenging than Assassins, now in an excellent production through April 18 by the UNC Charlotte Department of Theatre at Robinson Hall on the UNC Charlotte campus.

In his director’s notes, James Vesce, chair of the Department of Theatre, wrote that the department’s current production of Assassins was a “step forward” for the students and that he hoped the audience would be both “entertained and challenged as we have been by this production.” The department certainly rose to the challenge, presenting a thoroughly professional show.

First performed in 1990, with a book by John Weidman, Assassins takes a look at nine people who assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, American presidents. The big names are there – John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald – alongside those less famous– Samuel Byck, for example, who plotted to kill Nixon by crashing a plane into the White House. In a non-linear, non-chronological series of interactions and explanations, the musical explores the motives that drove each assassin to commit the ultimate crime. Some of it is fact; some is presumption; and some is just plain made up. But what emerges is a set of characters, often disturbed and sometimes sympathetic, whose delusions and grievances and disappointments stay with the theatergoer long after the show has ended.

The cast of nearly 20 students gave mature, self-assured performances, both in speech and song. Every voice was strong, every character convincing. There were a few occasions when the rapid-fire storytelling of The Balladeer (Traven Harrington) could have benefited from clearer diction or a bit more volume, but for the most part, Sondheim’s clever lyrics prevailed. And each actor navigated Sondheim’s tunes, both the regular intervals and the not-so-regular, with fine voices. The tones of John Hinckley (John Freeze) at times sounded a little unpolished, but the flatness of sound was a perfect match for the rather childish, Jodie Foster-obsessed character.

From the pompous Charles Guiteau (Evan Kinsley, who sang an excellent hymn – “I am going to the Lordy”) to the goofy Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Amanda Nifong, who provided frequent comic relief) to the high-minded but lonely Leon Czolgolsz (Steven Tyler Waddell as perhaps the most sympathetic assassin), the students infused each character with both strong and subtle personality. The most fascinating is John Wilkes Booth. “You inspired us all,” he is told at the show’s beginning, but he is more than inspiration. He is the tempter, the Mephistopheles who leads the others along the path of destruction.

When Giuseppe Zangarra (Doug Savitt) complains of a never-ending bellyache, Booth responds, “Have you tried shooting Franklin Roosevelt?” Later, the delightful off-kilter waltz, “Gun Song,” promises that “All you have to do is move your little finger” to change the world. But Booth’s greatest challenge is to persuade Lee Harvey Oswald, who is planning to kill only himself, to shoot Kennedy. Booth cleverly uses a line from Death of a Salesman (“Attention must be paid”) and the historical example of Brutus and Caesar, along with the full pressure of all the other assassins, to convince Oswald that the murder is his one chance at immortality. “This is the real conspiracy,” Booth says, referring to the influence that he and the others finally have.

The set was as fine as the performances. In the theater lobby, displays gave historical information about the real assassins in clever side-show and carnival-game set-ups (the show takes place in a carnival setting). Inside the theatre, the carnival was in full force prior to the start of the show – involving the audience in the kind of experiential theatre that companies such as Charlotte’s Carolina Actors Studio Theater do so well. The orchestra, perched on a platform in the rear of the stage, was not exceptional but was sufficient.

Assassins was scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall of 2001 but was postponed until 2004 as a result of 9-11. Truly, it was wise to delay the Broadway performance while the nation healed. And yet, in these days, when parties are threatening to form militias, it is no less unsettling to witness the fury and the obsessions of these nine assassins.

Note: For details on remaining performances, see our calendar.