First produced off Broadway in 1991 Assassins is considered one of the most significant contributions to American Theatre. This revue style show brings us face to face with nine of America’s most notorious political assassins – some successful, others less so, some familiar and others not.
With an intelligent book by John Weidman and an exciting score by Stephen Sondheim, Assassins is a glorious 90 minute, one act history lesson. Factual information aside, it also illustrates complex social issues such as the right to bare arms, economic inequality, racism and sexism. It endeavours to show that these characters are as much a product of American society as the men they targeted. It is a richly dark and at times comical assortment of musical numbers and conversations, that delves into each assassins psyche and their attempts at notoriety.
Black Swan’s production is striking to look at. Set designer Lawrie Cullen-Tait has captured the darkness brilliantly. Arguably the most famous of assassinations (JFK), the enormous facade of the Texas Schoolbook Depository sits as the shows backdrop. A towering piece of intricately designed brickwork and arches, it cleverly doubles as a screen for the very well researched and timed historical projections and videos designed by Michael Carmody. The whole design blends well with Mark Howett’s emotive lighting and Lynn Ferguson’s era specific costume design.
Resembling a carnival sideshow, we are introduced to the assassins by the proprietor (Luke Hewitt) inviting the assassins to grab a gun and ‘kill a president’ Hewitt is wonderfully present as the eyes and ears, the ’devil on the assassins shoulder’. The Balladeer (Finn Alexander) has the unenviable job of keeping the narrative firing along, which he does, but it is later (will not reveal so not to spoil!) we see Alexander’s talent really come to the fore.
As the leader of this unlikely group, Brendan Hanson as Lincoln’s assassin, famed actor John Wilkes Booth, has the complex vocals firmly in his grasp. The climatic schoolbook depository scene is where we get to see Hanson really shine. Mckenzie Dunn’s teenage runaway and lover to Charlie Manson, Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, perfectly captures wild eyed teenage obsession. Coupled with Caitlin Beresford -Ord’s scatty, five time divorced Sara Jane Moore, we are treated to some fine comedic moments. Special mention to Moore’s son (Oliver Halusz) who delivers that perfect high voice whine so as to infuriate any parent!
Geoff Kelso has the right intent with his manic Samuel Byck, but the speed of delivery was such that I missed much of these wonderfully written monologues. There is no denying Kelso’s presence though and in ‘Another National Anthem’ his leering Byck gives the number a somewhat unpleasant, almost deviant edge.
Nick Eynaud’s understated John Hinckley has a genuine fragility in his obsession. His duet with Dunn, Unworthy of Your Love, is vocally and visually beautiful. Will O’Mahony is an unsettling overtly confident and forever smiling Charles Guiteau, a man desperate to become Ambassador to France and willing to do anything to achieve his goal.
Nathan Stark’s (Giuseppe Zangara) high notes are wonderful as is his conviction to the Italian language. And Natasha Vickery is beautifully stoic as anarchist and social justice crusader Emma Goldman. The meeting between Goldman and Polish immigrant assassin Leon Czolgosz (Cameron Steens) has a genuine warmth and Steen’s quiet desperation lovely to watch.
Director Roger Hodgman knows his Sondheim and it shows. There is restraint in the staging and subtlety in the direction, trusting the words, music and cast’s talent to shine. Jangoo Chapkhana’s fantastic band are exceptionally tight and a pleasure to hear.
If I was to criticise anything it is the choice of theatre. There is no denying that Assassins is better staged in a smaller intimate venue. This is show built around conversations. The Heath Ledger main stage is cavernous so this did impact the overall ambience and unfortunately loss of dramatic tension. But with theatre budgets getting tighter there sometimes has to be compromises (and economic considerations) to enable a company present important theatrical pieces.
Black Swan have produced a slick and engaging production that will only develop and mature as the run progresses. I encourage everyone to see this incredibly intelligent, relevant and rarely performed show. Hats off again to Black Swan for bringing diversity to the Perth stage.
Photo credit Philip Gostelow.
Cast: Finn Alexander, Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Jacob Clayton, Mackenzie Dunn, Nick Eynaud, Oliver Halusz, Brendan Hanson, Luke Hewitt, Geoff Kelso, Will O’Mahony, Nathan Stark, Cameron Steens, Natasha Vickery
Director: Roger Hodgman,
Musical Director: Jangoo Chapkhana, Set Designer: Lawrie Cullen-Tait, Costume Designer: Lynn Ferguson, Lighting Designer: Mark Howett, Sound Designer: Brett Smith
Choreographer: Claudia Alessi, Video Designer: Michael Carmody, Vocal Coach: Julia Moody, Lighting Design Associate: Chloe Ogilvie