Review by Scott Whitmont
Nine historical would-be assassins of U.S. Presidents meeting together under the direction of a carnival Proprietor to ‘swap notes’ and encourage each other in their Machiavellian goals is not subject matter one would expect as fodder for a stage musical. In the hands, however, of the late brilliant musical master Stephen Sondheim, Assassins succeeds in entertaining absolutely.
Spanning the period from Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 to John Hinkley Jr.’s attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981 Assassins’ plot also covers the killings of Presidents Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy plus attempts on the lives of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Some were motivated by passionate political discontent but most by either misconceived desires for justice and vengeance or simply by mental illness. Each tragic incident is recounted from the perpetrator's perspective, with added insight provided by a musical narrator (“The Balladeer”). Encouraged by the example of the ‘original’ assassin, John Wilkes Booth, our sorry band of homicidal misfits meet up through time to egg each other on, airing their perceived grievances through catchy numbers such as “Everybody’s Got A Right (to their dreams)’ and ‘Another National Anthem’ (“I want my prize!”)
Lane Cove Theatre Company’s current production under the direction of Miriam Rihani, is a fine example of what can be achieved by an amateur community group with talent and dedication despite underfunding and limited resources. On a church hall stage with just a simple riser and black curtain backing, American political history is brought to life with enthusiasm, professionalism and panache. The three person band provides every bit as adequate and impressive accompaniment as would a full theatre orchestra whilst the ensemble cast (individually and collectively) handle a quirky and difficult score with deft care and gusto, providing sonorous, adroit harmonies. Clearly, the co-Musical Directors (Jeremy Kindl and Gianna Cheung) have professional experience and are on top of their game. Though not every solo was pitch-perfect, the standard of singing was still way above what one might expect in an amateur production. James Burchett as The Balladeer and bass singer Max Waterson as Leon Czolgosz (assassin of President William McKinley) deserve particular mention for their vocal control and masterful timbre.
Costumes and weapon props were fitting for each historical period covered and multiple ‘shooting’ or bottle-breaking sound effects were on queue and effectively realistic.
Despite its subject matter, there is much humour and a few belly laughs to be had in Assassins. The ensemble support cast of town-folk and bystanders do a cracking back-up job providing light-hearted entertainment and comic relief, vying with each other for the microphone as they each try to take credit for ‘How I Saved Roosevelt’ or ably dancing their simple yet charming choreography routines.
In two monologue scenes which clearly showcase his immense talent as a character actor, one cast standout is Tommy James Green, playing would-be plane hijacker and Nixon-killer Samuel Byck. With hypnotic mad eyes and facial contortions, every sentence uttered in his diatribe messages recorded for his hero Leonard Bernstein and for President Nixon is simply mesmerising.
Though the examination of why American society produces so many assassins may be more relevant to American audiences than to ours, Sondheim’s rumination on political ideals and societal failures has universal relevance. The only sad thing about Lane Cove Theatre Company’s production is that it has such a short run at a limited-size venue. All involved in the production can be justifiably proud of themselves.