Could you kill a President? That’s what a fairground proprietor asks in this 1990s genre-busting Sondheim musical that explores both the real-life and imagined motives why nine people in the USA pointed a gun at their Commander In Chief.
Anyone with the slightest appreciation for Musical Theatre will tingle as these beguiling numbers are delivered with gusto.
It’s not the usual musical fodder, I grant you, but in typical Sondheim style the composer cleverly turns John Weidman’s book into an intelligent journey through what would probably be indigestible in the hands of lesser talent. Much of the initial action focuses on the individual assassins; their backstories and reasons for their actions. Their stories overlap at the shooting gallery where the Proprietor (Peter Watts) becomes our master of ceremonies, assisted by the Balladeer (Jason Kajdi) both helping everything unfold. It is not until we get to Lee Harvey Oswald’s tale (here multiroled by Kajdi), does Weidman’s genius conspiracy theory come to the fore.
Sondheim’s music is sublime, each assassin getting a song in the style of their time, such as the Sousa-inspired How I Saved Roosevelt, or 1970s soppy love song Unworthy Of Your Love. Of course the sum of its parts adds up to so much more – anyone with the slightest appreciation for Musical Theatre will tingle as these beguiling numbers are delivered with gusto.
The casting in this production is exceptional, with not a weak link to be found. Kajdi does particularly well in both his roles as the matter-of-fact Balladeer and conflicted Oswald. Watts brings quite the vocal talent in both song and voiceover, narrating and then morphing into the radio at Oswald’s book depository. Sara Jane Moore is a gift for a comic actor, and Abigail Williams wastes none of it with her riotous interpretations of the housewife gunwoman who takes her dog and her child on the ‘hit’ because she got school terms mixed up. Moore is linked up with Lynette “Squeaky” Froome (Michaela Cartmell) here in a bit of artistic licence, since although they both went after Gerald Ford, they didn’t do it at the same time. There’s a powerful performance from Jack Reitman as the would-be Roosevelt killer Giuseppe Zangara who screams at his critics from the electric chair. Alfie Parker almost hyperventilates his way through role of Sam Byck, dressed as a dishevelled Santa Claus throwing cold burgers from his truck as he holds one-sided conversations with Leonard Bernstein. Andrew Pepper plays fame-hungry plagiarist author Charles Guiteau with camp energy, even as he cakewalks up the gallows to meet his maker. Alexander McMorran gets plenty of opportunity to show off his acting chops in the role of John Wilkes Booth, with a fine performance of the aftermath of shooting Abraham Lincoln and in his collusion with Lew Harvey Oswald. Toby Hine nails the fragile and disturbed character of John Hinkley, the guy who went after Ronald Regan because he thought it would impress his screen idol Jodie Foster. Conor McFarlane brings sympathy to his working-man plight with the heartfelt rendition of the Gun Song, and it’s here I think we find the true relevance of Assassins in contemporary times rather than the rather cheap way this production adds Donald Trump to the shooting gallery for our cast to take a shot at. Surely the message here is America’s unique love affair with firearms and the powerful gun lobby that will fight for the rights of a madman to get access to them is a more chilling takeaway than suggesting someone ought to go after Trump (I stress I’m no fan of the Orange Cheeto currently in the Oval Office, but I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest assassination is a sensible option).
My minor quibbles with this show are not with the fantastic cast or marvellous sound coming from the eight-strong band, but with the slightly cheap production values. Employing one of the few revolves you’ll find on a fringe theatre stage, the set spins to reveal about two-and-a-half playing spaces – and the rub is that it’s all a bit sloppily executed. From my viewpoint in the third row it’s a bit of a half-arsed paint job, and as the walls spin you can see way too much of its underskirt. A more professional gloss would be good here. There are also some technical problems with mics, that I wouldn’t normally mention because I wouldn’t expect them to be in a future show – but not only was there a few times where mics just weren’t on, but even when they were there’s a lot of cracking and popping going on. I suspect those problems will only be fixed with different equipment, not more previews.
But I don’t want to focus on the negatives, as I came away from the experience with a broad smile on my face. Don’t worry about the slightly Crossroads Motel set and instead focus on the pure quality of the writing, acting and singing. That is, after all, the stuff that matters.