Musicals, Reviews, Stage

Assassins review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

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What could possibly drive an individual to take the future of their country into their own hands by assassinating their democratically elected leader? What’s behind the choice to throw one’s own life and country into chaos in the hope that what will rise in the place of a fallen leader will be superior to the power structure as it currently exists? Who would want to shoot a president?

Those questions may be a little bit easier to answer today than they had been a few years ago, which makes the Hayes Theatre’s new production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 musical Assassins particularly pertinent.

The musical tells the story of several of the men and women who have attempted to kill a US President (it’s worth noting only two women have ever attempted such an assassination). Composer and lyricist Sondheim and book writer Weidman have included the stories of five would-be assassins and four successful ones, starting with John Wilkes Booth’s shooting of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, leading up to John Hinckley Jr’s attempts on Ronald Reagan in 1981.

But this is no dry history lesson; Sondheim and Weidman tell the stories of these bad- and mad-men in a vaudeville-style revue, the central conceit of which is that the assassins are participating in a side-show, attempting to shoot a president.

Bringing this carnival-esque and darkly funny world to life is Dean Bryant, who has directed two of the Hayes Theatre’s most successful productions: Sweet Charity in 2014 and Little Shop of Horrors in 2016.

He’s absolutely outdone himself in terms of bold inventiveness, and his work with designer Alicia Clements is astonishing. In fact, it’s the most successful direction-design collaboration I’ve seen in an intimate musical.

Clements has brought an abandoned carnival to the Hayes stage — covered in a dazzling mirrored surface that extends the space — with light-up elements in every corner, a discarded jukebox and pinball machine, a carousel horse, and even a dodgem car.

“a landmark for ambitious local productions of ambitious works”

Many of these elements attach to individual characters or musical numbers within the show, and it only becomes clear which set piece belongs to which song when they’re lit up and used in part of a performance.

The musical is blessed with a wonderfully accomplished cast of 11, who we’re introduced to in the opening number, Everybody’s Got The Right. The song sees the Proprietor of the side-show (sung in a gorgeously rich baritone by Rob McDougall) arm each of the assassins with a gun and encourage them to join in this deadly game.

The performers all deftly manage the musical’s sudden shifts in tone, clear right from the first assassin’s tale, The Ballad of Booth, performed by David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth, and the broodingly charismatic and talented newcomer Maxwell Simon as the Balladeer. Campbell is an excellent Booth, completely transforming and summoning up all of the character’s fear and anger, while Simon offers a more wry, emotionally cool take on the events of Lincoln’s assassination.

Bobby Fox gets the show-stopper of the night, in the high-energy Ballad of Guiteau, performed with a large light-up skipping rope that might also be a hangman’s noose. There are also some excellent comedic and crowd-pleasing moments from Kate Cole as the most unlikely assassin of all, Sara Jane Moore.

But every single cast member delivers the goods, including Laura Bunting as Emma Goldman, Connor Crawford as John Hinckley Jr, Martin Crewes as Giuseppe Zangara, Hannah Fredericksen as Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, Jason Kos as Leon Czolgosz, and Justin Smith as Samuel Byck.

The full company numbers are particularly impressive, as choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth — the highly stylised How I Saved Roosevelt and Ballad of Czolgosz are highlights — and brought to spectacular life thanks to Ross Graham’s lighting.

And musical director Andrew Worboys keeps the company and small band in tight order, which is hardly an easy task given the confines of this venue and the challenges of the score.

“Sondheim and Weidman spend much of the show crashing together dissatisfied individuals from American history in a satisfyingly haphazard, and deeply rewarding manner.”

Bryant’s production is every bit as good as you’d hope. It’s a landmark for ambitious local productions of ambitious works, and handles extraordinarily difficult material with ease. There are several moments that are absolutely breath-taking, and despite a few early opening night niggles, it comes together seamlessly.

But I have some reservations about the material itself.

While it’s frequently one of the most daring, incisive and entertaining pieces of musical theatre ever written — with some of Sondheim’s best lyrics and a score that crosses a century of popular music — it stumbles in its final half-hour as it attempts to tie together the various stories of the assassins into one unified core.

Sondheim and Weidman spend much of the show crashing together dissatisfied individuals from American history in a satisfyingly haphazard, and deeply rewarding manner. When it comes to the final sequences, they struggle to find a conclusion.

Although Sondheim and Weidman are two of the most significant innovators of the musical form, they’re still strongly attached to the notion that a musical must tie things together in some way and leave its audience with some sense of comfort.

A fairly lengthy scene in which the assassins unite and encourage a new individual them to take the life of a president is a little too obvious and clunky, and takes a bit of the wind out of the sails in a musical that up until that point is hurtling through a brilliant score and extraordinary revelation after extraordinary revelation.

I wonder whether, if Sondheim and Weidman had written the musical today, they’d resign themselves to the inability of the musical to provide any significant answers about what we might draw from the act of assassination.

There’s a clear burning rage and deep dissatisfaction at the core of all the assassinations, but a musical that leaves these significant questions open to the audience might ultimately be more satisfying in the chaos and frequent terror of politics in 2017.

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[box]Assassins is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until October 22.

Featured image by Phil Erbacher[/box]

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