It was the late stand-up comedian and actor George Carlin who once said: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
It’s a perception one takes away from Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, which opened this week at Hayes Theatre Co under the direction of Dean Bryant. With music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, Assassins is the story of nine male and female misfits. They arrive in a fairground shooting gallery and are persuaded by its proprietor (Rob McDougall) that the answer to each of their problems is to assassinate the President of the United States.
One by one, each of the nine individuals attempts just that, with four of them succeeding: American actor and Confederate sympathiser, John Wilkes Booth (David Campbell), who blames Abraham Lincoln for the destruction of the South, kills the president with a single shot to the head; writer and lawyer Charles Guiteau (Bobby Fox) shoots dead President James A. Garfield, who rejected his requests to be appointed Ambassador to France; anarchist Leon Czolgosz (Jason Kos), outraged by the exploitation of the poor, shoots President William McKinley; and former US marine Lee Harvey Oswald takes the life of President John F. Kennedy, in a crime that has become the subject of some of the longest-standing and fiercely debated conspiracy theories.
And then there were those unsuccessful in their attempts: Italian American Giuseppe Zangara (Martin Crewes) intends to shoot President Franklin D. Roosevelt but misses and instead hits Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak; Charles Manson devotee Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (Hannah Fredericksen) and Sara Jane Moore (Kate Cole) both fail in their separate efforts to assassinate President Gerald Ford; John Hinckley Jr’s (Connor Crawford) attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster by killing President Ronald Reagan fails; and Samuel Byck (Justin Smith) ultimately shoots himself instead of his target, President Richard Nixon.
With a strong score that features quintessentially clever Sondheim lyrics, Assassins is a provocative and visceral piece that highlights the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots, and the lengths some of the disenfranchised will go to, in order to be heard. This is a country known the world over for promulgating the idea that all that success on its shores requires is hard work and determination; it’s a land where the right to happiness is enshrined in its Declaration of Independence.
Bryant has taken Assassins and brought it to life in a slick and smart production that packs one hell of a punch. Designer Alicia Clements has constructed an alluring fairground that is bright and shiny enough to entice each of the nine assassins, and Bryant ensures their use of space is most effective throughout. Clements’ costumes are similarly impressive and character appropriate, while Ross Graham is behind arguably the best use of lighting we’ve seen to date in the intimate Hayes auditorium, utilising colour and moving lights to great effect.
On top of that, Bryant’s cast is about as strong as one could assemble for a production of Assassins. Campbell is excellent in depicting the villainous Booth, raging against the man he blames for the descent of the Confederacy. Crewes’ portrayal of Zangara’s physical pain is astonishingly believable to the point we’re completely convinced a man in his state is capable of resorting to acts of desperation. Fox does well with the somewhat bizarre character of Guiteau. ‘The Ballad of Guiteau’, a song based on a poem Guiteau wrote himself on the morning of his execution (which is pointed to as evidence of his derangement), is one of the highlights of the show, thanks to Bryant’s excellent staging choices and Andrew Hallsworth’s thoughtful choreography. It gifts Fox a few moments to demonstrate some of his well-honed dance skills. Additionally, Crawford adeptly portrays the Jodie Foster-fixated Reagan shooter, and Kos delivers at Czolgosz.
It’s important to emphasise that despite the fact of its delving into weighty subject matter, Assassins is also very funny. As Moore, the politically-motivated 45-year-old mum of four who takes her shot at President Gerald Ford, Cole is hilarious, providing one of the production’s most memorable performances. Fredericksen too, as Fromme, demonstrates great comic timing. And as Byck, the man who sought to fly a plane into a Richard Nixon-occupied White House, Smith showcases his tremendous acting and comedic capabilities.
As the balladeer, narrating the tales of each shooter, Maxwell Simon is well cast. He’s depicted as an All-American Boy, good looking and clean cut, with a relentlessly optimistic attitude and a strong advocate of the American Dream, pushing back on the dissenting voices. And while (literally) on the sidelines for much of the time, McDougall makes his mark as the proprietor, his baritone offering some of the evening’s finest vocals. Laura Bunting similarly has fleeting opportunities to impress as Emma Goldman, an anarchist who inspired Czolgosz, but she brings to the role the necessary strength.
Musical director Andrew Worboys and his small band manage to give Sondheim’s score the grand sound it requires. It’s always a treat when a conscious effort is made to create a big sound in this small room.
This is an excellent production, intelligently directed and superbly performed. It’s a disturbing reality that when voices in the crowd feel unheard and challenges obscure perceived entitlements, some will go to great lengths to ensure they can claim their ultimate prize.
ASSASSINS – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point)
Season: Playing now until October 22
Times: Mon 6:30pm, Tue-Sat 7.30pm, Wed & Sat 2pm
Run Time: Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes (no interval)
Patrons’ Advice: Recommended for audience members 15 years and older
Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337