NEW YORK -- The setting looks like a ghostly, abandoned carnival with a rickety roller coaster rising to the stars and a disturbing motto blazing in lights: "Shoot! Win!"
It's an appropriate sideshow sentiment for "Assassins," the stunning, gut-punch of a musical that the Roundabout Theatre Company has had the good sense to revive at Studio 54.
Thirteen years ago in its initial incarnation at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, this creation of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman was an extraordinary, unsettling piece of musical theater. It still is today, and in director Joe Mantello's perceptive and precise production, the show seems even darker and more malevolent.
The times may be riper for the musical, too. The world has grown a lot more unsafe, for one thing. And the quest for celebrity is fiercer: Just what will people do for a bit of notoriety? The machinations of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" or even Roxie Hart in "Chicago" are like child's play compared to the stuff found here.
In "Assassins," Weidman and Sondheim present a cavalcade of misfits, the desperate and the disaffected who killed or tried to kill the president of the United States.
These individuals - from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley - each get a moment, musical or otherwise, to explain why they did what they did. Weidman's book follows a revuelike format as it travels along a disjointed path of American history.
The proprietor of a shooting gallery (a fierce-looking Marc Kudisch with shaved head, gold teeth and tattoos) invites these misfits to shoot a president - if that's what they want to do. "Everybody's got the right to happy," he croons. It's one of Sondheim's more direct lyrics, wedded to a jaunty, hypnotic tune.
The composer's score is one of his most accessible, and despite its subject matter, melodically appealing. It's a celebration of musical Americana - from spirituals to soft rock, from John Philip Sousa to Woody Guthrie - often with a particular, perverse Sondheim twist.
Changes in the show since its premiere in 1991 have been minor. "Something Just Broke," an affecting song from the London production, has been added. In it, people recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard that John Kennedy was shot.
The creators have also done something ingenious with the character of the Balladeer, until now used mostly as a device to link the various brief sketches.
At Studio 54, it's the Balladeer, played with quiet determination by Neil Patrick Harris, who morphs into a reluctant Lee Harvey Oswald. In the original production, he was played by another actor.
It's Oswald who must be convinced by the other assassins that he needs to kill Kennedy if he wants to gain immortality, and their argument becomes the musical's most chilling moment.
For a show with such grim scenes, there is a surprising amount of humor in the evening. Much of that is supplied by the characters of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Mary Catherine Garrison) and Sara Jane Moore (Becky Ann Baker), linked by Weidman because of their separate, inept attempts to kill Gerald Ford.
Mario Cantone babbles hilariously as the desperately neurotic Samuel Byck who wanted to crash a plane into the White House and get Richard Nixon.
Denis O'Hare gives a twitchy, hyperactive performance as Charles Guiteau. literally cakewalking his way to the scaffold to pay for his assassination of James Garfield.
And we haven't even gotten to Alexander Gemignani as the shyly pathetic Hinckley or the dynamic Michael Cerveris, who, as Booth, joins with three others to sing the slyly seductive "Gun Song." It's this quartet that urges would-be assassins to move their little trigger finger and "you can change the world."
This sense of empowerment pervades "Assassins," turning these surefire losers into winners, at least in their own minds. And Weidman and Sondheim have perfectly captured their dark deeds.