Celebrating nine successful and would-be U.S. presidential assassins and their accomplices in a Stephen Sondheim musical, presented with an opening weekend carnival gala? There's only one place in town that's going down: The Empty Space.

This weekend the Oak Street theater will open its rollicking production of the 1990 musical setting these real-life criminals against the backdrop of a murderous carnival game.

Director Kristina Saldana said she pitched the show, feeling a connection with the show's larger societal message.

"The assassins, along with the rest of us, are fed this idea that if you work hard enough, you too can achieve The American Dream," she wrote in an email. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And when you realize how difficult society actually make that pursuit for some of us more than others, you might be compelled to take matters into your own hand, literally, and unfortunately sometimes, too easily."

Vilified in real life, these characters are not portrayed as freaks in the show but rather victims of society's high expectations, Saldana said.

"The show is not about shooting the president of the United States. The show is about the lives these people led up to the point they decide to do that and what that reveals about themselves, ourselves, and America as a whole."

Saldana also said that the show gets away with some humor based on its character selection.

"I think another way Sondheim is able to integrate humor into a seemingly dark subject is that most of these assassins failed," she said. "And most times for ridiculous reasons. Mainly terrible planning and absurd motives. It makes it laughable."

The titular assassins include John Wilkes Booth (Kyle Gaines), who killed President Lincoln; John Hinckley Jr. (Perrin Swanson), who shot President Reagan; Samuel Byck (Nick Ono), who tried to kill President Nixon; and Sara Jane Moore (Abby Bowles-Votaw) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Nancee Steiger), who separately plotted to kill President Ford.

With "Assassins" set in a "made-up, purgatory carnival," it was a natural fit to theme the opening gala with a bit of fun. Attendees of the performances on Friday and Saturday will receive a souvenir program and snack pass for three delicious treats.

Options will include popcorn, cotton candy, ice cream, salt water taffy, soft pretzels, hot dogs, frozen lemonade and frozen hot chocolate. The concessions bar will also include the usual candy bars, soda, water, beer and wine. VIP tables ($60, seats two) receive popcorn, carnival pops and unlimited drinks at your table. (The popcorn, frozen lemonade and some other treats will be available the whole run, Saldana said.)

"Assassins" runs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through June 9 at The Empty Space, 706 Oak St. Gala tickets for this weekend are $20, $25 for priority seating, $60 for a VIP table for two (with front-row seats, drinks and assortment of carnival treats). Tickets for the rest of the run are $15, $20 for priority seating, $10 for students and seniors and $60 for VIP. Make reservations at esonline.org.

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.

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