What does it take to shoot a president and would you be able to do it? Assassins, based on a book by John Weidman and with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim, explores the minds of the men and women who attempted, with varying degrees of success, to assassinate Presidents of the United States.
The overarching conceit for this unlikely musical subject is an all-American fairground in which the proprietor of a shooting gallery provides the would-be assassins with their weapons on the promise that all their problems will go away once they shoot a President. Then follows an exploration of the motives of each gunman, from the ‘grandaddy of them all’, John Wilkes Booth, who shot Abraham Lincoln, to Lee Harvey Oswald who’s given a delicious twist in the reason why he assassinated John F Kennedy. Sondheim’s musical vocabulary is wildly diverse in this show combining love ballads, sousa marches, cakewalk, barbershop and even hoe-down. This mix sounds like a recipe for disaster on paper, but the score is so tightly organised to make the final product simply sublime.
Assassins is a masterpiece of a musical, and this production definitely does it justice. Matt Elliot-Ripley is uncomfortably convincing as the Proprietor, as he calls out in an inviting voice, ‘Come here and kill a President!’ Special mention should also be made of Will Karani as both Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald. With great vocals and a convincing performance, his transformation from the personification of the American Dream to the man who tried to kill just that, leaves the audience shivering with discomfort. The subtle irony in the fact that the American Dream is turning on itself is one of things that make this a truly great show.
Great acting, together with the live music and competent voices, makes this a production well worth your time. Sondheim is traditionally a popular ticket at the Fringe, but not a composer to tackle lightly. These young performers do an admirable job with the tricky score and manage to explore the darker sides of the American Dream without overdoing it. This production succeeds in providing one-and-a-half-hour’s worth of strangely discomforting enjoyment.