Stephen Sondheim always expected that the content of this dark musical would disturb people. He intended that it should. He could not have predicted however, that, nearly 30 years later, at a time when two world leaders compete to convince us that the only way to solve their disagreement is nuclear war, the content of his musical would resonate even more powerfully.
His characters are a group of historical misfits, all with the same idea, that the only way to solve their problems is to kill a president. Some were successful, others not so. But the real shock of this show is the guilty pleasure derived from the entertaining way the dilemma of each of these unfortunates is depicted.
Dean Bryant’s brilliant production has the action taking place among the detritus of a decaying amusement park, complete with carnival lights, a rusting dodgem car and discarded merry-go-round horse. The audience enters the theatre to discover a sleeping figure. On his lap is a book, with the word ‘Trump’ prominently displayed on the cover, and a haranguing political speech emanating from the radio by his side.
As the various characters are introduced by the balladeer (Maxwell Simon, who later doubles, rivetingly, as Lee Harvey Oswald), to the upbeat Everybody’s Got the Right, each is handed a gun, with the promise that it will solve their problems.
The mood changes with the entrance of David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth, the actor who shot Abraham Lincoln during a theatre performance. Campbell, charismatic and almost unrecognisable in wig and facial hair, dominates the stage in all his scenes, particularly during The Ballad of John Wilkes Booth, and later in a chilling scene in which he manipulates and coerces the hesitant Lee Harvey Oswald into killing John F. Kennedy.
Campbell is surrounded by an outstanding ensemble which includes Bobby Fox, compelling as the wild-eyed Charles Guiteau, whose failed attempt to assassinate President Garfield, led to his execution at the gallows. Martin Crewes is an intense Giuseppe Zangara, driven to desperation by stomach pains.
Hannah Fredericksen captures the spaced out fragility of Charles Manson devotee, ‘Squeaky” (Fromme) whose failed attempt to kill President Ford, brought her into contact with the similarly incompetent Sara Jane Moore (portrayed by Kate Cole with delicious comic malevolence), who had the same target in her sights but only managed to kill her dog.
Laura Bunting (Emma Goldman), Connor Crawford (John Hinckley Jnr.), Jason Kos (Leon Czolgosz), Rob McDougall (The Proprietor) and Justin Smith (Samuel Byck) all provide memorable performances in a cast in which there are no weak links.
Superb singing, together with excellent diction and admirable sound design, allows Andrew Worboy’s gutsy band to do full justice to Sondheim’s surprisingly accessible score without compromising his brilliant lyrics. Outstanding lighting design, coupled with the shiny stage surface, combines with Andrew Hallsworth’s inventive choreography to fascinate the eye into believing that everything is taking place in a much larger space than the tiny Hayes Theatre.
Assassins is certainly not your usual musical romp. This superbly staged realisation of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most disturbing musicals challenges and entertains in equal measure. It’s a brilliant addition to the list of outstanding productions by the Hayes Theatre Company and should not be missed by anyone seeking an exceptional music theatre experience.
Hayes Theatre Co. 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Performance: Tuesday 19 September 2017 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 22 October 2017
Information and Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au
Image: The Cast of Assassins – photo by Phil Erbacher
Review: Bill Stephens OAM