‘Assassins’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by June 22, 2018

‘Assassins’ is an audacious, dark humoured, adult musical, based on the stage adaption by John Weidman of Charles Gilbert, Jr’s book. Stephen Sondheim then added the music and lyrics to the historical statement. The show won a Tony Award for ‘Best Revival’, before winning ‘Best (overall) Production’ at The London ‘Off West End’ Awards. Sondheim of course was also responsible for major shows including ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘Gypsy’.

This highly entertaining, 100-minute sparkling production (no interval) is being presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company in the Heath Ledger Theatre, Northbridge in Perth at 7.30 each evening until Sunday 1st July.

Even though the musical was first produced some 20 years ago, it may be considered just as relevant with today’s American politics, and leaders that ignore the people’s feelings.

 

The set designer, Lawrie Cullen-Tait’s outstanding creation brought a gasp from everyone in the audience. Constructed by Ben Green and scenic artist, Marek Syzler, the rear wall had two massive tiers of segmental, Roman arches reminiscent of the Coliseum.

The band was tucked in the wings on one side of the stage, with a brick staircase on the other.

The set and props included the various pieces of ‘unusual equipment’ for a couple of death scenes, but don’t worry they were lightly handled.

Lighting designer, Mark Howett and his associate Chloé Ogilvie had a complex and most effective lighting plan, combined with several tricky special effects such as a warehouse fire.

Sound designer, Brett Smith had numerous split second sound effects to cope with, all worked perfectly.

The video design included pictures of a dozen US Presidents scanning through the arches like a shooting gallery; there was a frieze above the six arches that acted as a further screen for the date and place of the events shown. One sign even had exploding letters which were in perfect sync with the crackles and pops of the disintegration of the lettering. The videos also contained actual historical footage of assassinations. The whole design was inventive and of a high standard, well done Michael Carmody.

Dressed as 1930s newspaper boys in dungarees and cloth caps, the stage manager Hugo Aguilar López and his assistant Katie Moore had a huge amount of work to carry out. The most efficient, silent and well planned stage work that I have seen in years.

The transport was supplied by Kim Westbrook.

 

       At a fairground shooting gallery, a gun salesman – ‘The Proprietor’ (Luke Hewitt, armourer Louise Grimshaw) is selling his weapons; enticing any lost souls to try their skills, assuring them that by killing a President, all of their problems will be disappear.

      It is 1865, and the immaculately dressed, well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth (Brendan Hanson – superb performance) who was determined to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, arrives in town. Down the brick steps comes ‘The Balladeer’ (Finn Alexander), a narrator who relates the stories of the American political assassins. He is the epitome of the American Dream. After the assassination, Booth has a broken leg and cannot escape; he is desperately trying to write his reasons for killing Lincoln, mainly blaming him for the Civil War. The Balladeer points out Booth’s real and personal problems.

       Ignoring chronology, the Assassins gather in a bar. Charles Guiteau (Will O’Mahony – magnificent) the assassin of twentieth President, James Garfield is speaking of his ambition to become Ambassador to France. Giuseppe Zangara (Nathan Stark – powerful) attempted to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt, but accidentally killed the Chicago Mayor. When Anton Cermak complained about stomach pains, Booth suggested that by shooting Franklin D. Roosevelt they will disappear.

       When John Hinckley Jnr (Nick Eynaud), who would later attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, breaks a Coke bottle accidentally, Leon Czolgosz (Cameron Steens) the assassin of President William McKinley flies into a rage. Having worked in a bottle factory, he had seen many men injured or killed whilst bottle making. Guiteau jokingly tells Czolgosz to find another job.

      A radio broadcast, narrated by the Proprietor, describes Zangara’s failed attempt to assassinate Roosevelt, while five bystanders state that he or she had personally saved the President.

     American political activist and anarchist, Emma Goldman (Natasha Vickery – beautiful voice) was a leader known for her link with Leon Czolgosz. Enraptured, Leon introduces himself and declares his love for her, and offers to carry her bag, however, Goldman declares “They make us servants, Leon. We do not make servants of each other.” Whilst at the 1901 Pan American Exposition, Czolgosz sees William McKinley is shaking hands with the public, and so he joins the receiving line; upon reaching the President, Leon shoots him.

       Two young women meet on a park bench and share a ‘joint’.  They are Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (Mackenzie Dunn – bubbly) who was a ‘lover and slave’ of mass murderer Charles Manson, and Sara Jane Moore (Caitlin Beresford-Ord – hilarious) an FBI informant. The two wild women plot to assassinate President Gerald Ford (Luke Hewitt), the thirty-eighth President.

       An angry, unemployed car mechanic, Samuel Byck (Geoff Kelso) is wearing a dirty Santa suit and sandwich boards. He is talking into a tape recorder, preparing a message to his hero, Leonard Bernstein. He explains that he is about to kill Richard Nixon by crashing a 747 into the White House. Next we see Byck driving to the airport, hoping to highjack a plane. He actually did attempt to assassinate President Nixon.

      A talented young dancer (Jacob Clayton) joins the assassins in a folk dance. Young Frederic, better known as Billy (Oliver Halusz) tries to beg money from his mother.

     The musical closes with Lee Harvey Oswald (Finn Alexander) assassinating President John F. Kennedy.

 

Sondheim suggested that political murderers are a product of the American political culture.

Director Roger Hodgman has completely captured the quirky madness of the assassins, and blended their underlying horrors with the great music, clever lyrics and fun situations.

The musical director and keyboard player was Jangoo Chapkhana, the band’s percussionist was Dennis Vrcic, Peter Jeavons was on acoustic bass, with Raymond Walker on classical and electric guitar. A small group but with a big sound. They carefully adapted their playing style to suit each of the very different singers, with the catchy melodies reflecting the music of the time, covering genres from the Deep South spirituals to lively marches.

Costume designer, Lynn Ferguson produced fabulous costumes – that covered a couple of centuries – constructed by Jenny Edwards, Sarah Forbes and Nicole Marrington; they were assisted by Julia Rutherford and Sophie Wilkinson.

Choreographer Claudia Alessi was at her very best. Employing dance routines for Guiteau (Will O’Mahony) that were a little like Fagan in ‘Oliver’. The whole cast performed a delightful routine that seemed to be a blend of line dancing and an Irish jig. Then the horror of Guiteau dancing his way to the gallows brought a smile, with Will O’Mahony’s cheeky, angelic face coupled with the odd deliberate false dance step.

Voice coach Julia Moody had her most difficult task in a while, with the actors having to learn foreign accents, in addition to various American regions. Most successful.

This was a fun show that kept up the pace, and held the audience’s attention with a visual and auditory feast. Great production by a top notch cast.