Assassins

Assassins is arguably one of Sondheim's finest musicals. It opened at Playwright Horizons in 1991, and then in London at the Donmar Warehouse in 1992. I was there, it was a moment I remember to this day. Assassins combines the patriotic pomp of Americana in its score with the gritty dissonance that clearly identifies a Sondheim score. Assassins - both failed and successful - may not sound like ideal material for a musical, but this ain't camp froth. Sondheim presents the lives and possible motives of nine people who have attempted to murder a president of the USA. Sondheim wraps up with the most fanciful JFK conspiracy of all, turning the show on its head.

But here's the rub. Whilst this may be the finest musical of the musical of the 20th Century, Bablake Drama fall very short of serving it justice.

It's an amateur production, but that cannot excuse some pretty basic faults. For instance; this is a musical. Perhaps they could cast people who can sing in tune? It's also polite to stick to the melody as written, rather than changing the score. Getting to a couple of specifics - but there are way too many notes to list all here - Sondheim is known for his ability to progress the narrative through a lyric; but this demands that the performers properly annunciate the songs lest the meaning be lost in a mumble. Sadly, that happened way too often. I also thought they were strangling a cat behind the curtain, until it became clear they had an oboe in the four-piece orchestra. The acting is all over the place, and whilst one cannot expect an amateur company to rise to the level of The National, nailing their feet to the floor may reduce the temptation to go walkabout whilst delivering a speech.

But that said, there were keen moments of joy. Adam Fray as John Wilkes Booth carried the whole book repository scene, restoring my faith in youth theatre. In fact, Fray was probably the most promising performer in the show. Richard Perry as Sam Byck also gave an engaging performance, which stood way above the panto happening around him.

Perhaps some things will be fixed with more rehearsal and just standing still to deliver a line will aid the performances. But learning to sing might be a tall order given the remaining length of the run.

Reviews by Pete Shaw

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The Blurb

Life, liberty and the pursuit of presidents: Stephen Sondheim's atmospheric, darkly comic musical ranges freely through the musical styles of American history to reveal the slights, injusticies, prejudices, and insanities that drove its presidential assassins. 'Spine-tingling' (Durham 21). www.likeashark.co.uk

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