If you’re the President of the United States, you probably get more than your fair share of death threats. However, as this 1990 genre-busting musical asserts, murder ‘is just a tawdry little crime’. When a President gets killed, it’s assassination. In the US, four Presidents have been assassinated, and there have attempts on the life of at least three more. Stephen Sondheim’s music and John Weidman’s book spins out their stories into a carnival sideshow fantasy, culminating in the one supposed act that gives the assassins’ lives meaning - the shooting of JFK in Dallas in 1963.
The broad strokes of their motives are entirely fanciful, but don’t doubt that you will learn something here. The obscure dark figures of American history are present, such as Charles Guiteau who shot James Garfield because he wouldn’t make him Ambassador to France and Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist follower of Emma Goldman who assassinated William McKinley. It’s entirely the kind of semi-educational material you’d expect an American student group to tackle, and here it’s a group from the prestigious Princeton University.
Early signs were not good. The pianist fumbled the opening few bars of the first song; the wobbly set looked decidedly unstable; the props had a worryingly handmade look about them and the lurid plastic guns seemed to suggest the Edinburgh branch of Toys ‘R’ Us had a special on firearms, with the knock-on effect that what should be startling gunshot was rendered as a artificial click. But then they started to sing. And boy, can they sing.
The company have taken the decision to perform the full work, so the show weighs in at nearly two hours. It even includes the additional number written for the London version, ‘Something Just Broke’. It’s time that flies by, however, since despite the macabre theme there is much humour at every turn. Sondheim echoes the era of each assassination (or attempt) with music of the time - so the score contains everything from bright Sousa marches, Civil War ballads, cakewalks, barbershop and many American styles in between.
The cast, as mentioned earlier, are the reason this potentially am-dram school production soars above the mundane. Alex Morton, as Lynette Fromme, is particularly impressive, as is Evan Thompson’s John Wilkes Booth. There are no weak links in the vocal line up, and additionally some beautifully detailed characterisations from Mark Watter as the nervously geeky John Hinkley and Pat Rands as down-at-heel Santa-besuited Sam Byck who has a thing for Bernstein musicals. As the Balladeer, Chris Murphy brings an almost gospel vocal to the role. It could have been horrible, but it kinda works.
Their strongest performances are when they’re focused on their individual set pieces, as some of the ensemble acting can be a bit hammy, but again it’s their vocals that rescue them with simply beautiful fluid harmonies which fill the room with Sondheim’s powerfully dissonant chords.
I would say go see them, but you’d be extremely lucky to get a ticket since their short run is already almost sold out, and deservedly so.