ELKTON — The 2016 Milburn Stone Theatre season starts with a bang over at the Elkton Station stage this week.
Director Andrew John Mitchell isn’t shy about explaining why he’s passionate about Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins.”
“I think it’s Sondheim’s best show,” he said, adding he heard the soundtrack before seeing a production of the musical at the Wilmington Drama League in 2008.
The musical is also one of the final works for the Milburn Stone’s “Season of Sondheim.” “Gypsy” runs on the Milburn Stone stage for three weekends starting Jan. 29. “Sunday in the Park with George” runs two weekends on the Milburn Stone stage starting March 18.
Whereas other shows from Sondheim, like “Sweeney Todd” or “Into the Woods,” are based off existing stories, Mitchell noted “Assassins” is an original concept.
“Assassins” studies the lives of nine individuals who assassinated or tried to assassinate the then-current president of the United States. In this one-act musical, assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact and inspire each other.
Admittedly, that’s a tough concept to sell to some audiences. And, shortly after the play debuted, Sondheim told The New York Times he expected backlash from the public due to the content.
The musical – which includes Sondheim’s memorable “Unworthy of Your Love” – first opened off-Broadway in 1990. The 2004 Broadway production, which included Michael Cerveris and Neil Patrick Harris, won five Tony Awards.
Mitchell said he hopes audiences will come to the Elkton show with an open mind. He recognized the characters inherently aren’t likable, but that the show works in “shades of gray.”
“This show does not excuse, but it does try to explain and help audiences potentially understand why someone might do that,” Mitchell said.
The musical uses the premise of a murderous carnival game to put on a revue-style show, with different songs featuring the stories of different men and women related to America’s darker moments. Songs vary with each assassin or would-be assassin to reflect the popular music of the eras depicted.
Mitchell said perhaps his favorite scene in the upcoming production is “How I Saved Roosevelt,” which is more of a big band number reminiscent of a 1930s musical. Mitchell credited show choreographer Suzanne Stein – who also happens to be married to Mitchell – and the acting and dancing skills of Milburn Stone regular Charlie Johnson with making it a fun number.
“Assassins” also serves as a bit of a history lesson. The show covers the stories of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, as well as people like Leon Frank Czolgosz, an American anarchist responsible for the assassination of William McKinley, and Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who separately attempted the assassination of Gerald Ford.
And audiences can get pretty close to the action.
Already the Elkton Station stage is recognized as the theater’s more intimate setting because of its small size. To ensure audience members don’t miss out on any moments, Mitchell said he decided to cap seating each night around 70 people. Some audience members will even have the chance to sit at cabaret tables that are part of the set.
“If you arrive early and want to, you can sit at the same table as one of the assassins, you can be in their world during the performance,” Mitchell said.
“Assassins” runs Thursday through Sunday, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for Cecil College students with an ID. The play is recommended for ages 16 and up. For tickets, call the Milburn Stone box office at 410-287-1037 or go online to www.milburnstone.org. Tickets can also be bought at the door with cash or check.