Dean Bryant’s take on Assassins is one of the most acclaimed productions to be mounted at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co to date. Originally performed off-Broadway 28 years ago, with a book by John Weidman and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Assassinsis a potent, politically-charged musical theatre piece about the lengths to which nine disenchanted individuals are driven in pursuit of the so-called ‘American Dream’. With Bryant at the helm, the 2017 Hayes production was a slick and shrewdly-realised theatrical presentation of a work that remains as relevant as it ever has been.
The Hayes production has been revived for a further limited season, now playing the 400-seat Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House. Most of the original cast members are back (David Campbell, Connor Crawford, Hannah Fredericksen, Kate Cole, Bobby Fox, Jason Winston, Rob McDougall and Maxwell Simon) while three new players have signed on (Anthony Gooley, Luigi Lucente and Madeleine Jones).
Assassins is set in a fairground shooting gallery to which nine incongruent patrons are enticed by the Proprietor (McDougall), who offers a prize to those who are prepared to shoot the President of the United States. Some succeed – among them, actor John Wilkes Booth (Campbell) kills Abraham Lincoln at a Washington DC Theatre, and anarchist Leon Czolgosz (Winston) causes the death of William McKinley in upstate New York – while five others fail but find themselves forever entrenched in history. Over the course of 105 minutes, the show delves back through 250 years of American history to examine the social milieu and the motivations of each of the nine that culminated in their assassination attempts, and highlights their representation of a wider class of disenfranchised persons desperate to have their existences acknowledged and to claim their ‘prize’, guaranteed and enshrined as a fundamental right.
In its return season, Bryant’s Assassins is every bit as imaginative, as darkly funny, and as insightful in its illustration of the realities of promising the impossible as it was at the Hayes. Weidman’s book is wonderfully written, matched by Sondheim’s razor sharp lyrics. The show is beautifully bookended by ‘Everybody’s got the right’, a number that is initially a celebratory declaration of what American life offers but, on its reprise, becomes an urgent demand from the downtrodden to be given what they believe they are entitled.
On opening night, the drama was unexpectedly heightened with Fox being sent to hospital mid-show. While performing a fast and intricate dance routine to ‘The Ballad of Guiteau’ (choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth, this is one of the production’s highlights), Fox fell and injured himself. The show was halted and, following a short interval, the role of Charles Guiteau was played for the remainder of the evening by Associate Producer Spencer Bignell, script in hand. The situation was handled with absolute professionalism (note: Ryan Gonzalez is now playing the role of Charles Guiteau until Fox recovers).
Scaled up for the Playhouse stage, Bryant’s production looks and sounds even better than it did at the Hayes. Alicia Clements’ vibrant and spectacular rendering of the fairground fills the space entirely and her superb costumes are deserving of the second outing. Ross Graham is again behind potentially the best lighting design we’ve seen in independent musical theatre in Sydney to date, while Andrew Worboys and his five players deliver a first-class reproduction of Sondheim’s score.
And while three of the cast members may have changed, this is every bit as fine an ensemble as the 2017 Hayes cast. Campbell is commanding and lends gravitas to his portrayal of Booth, the menacing, maniacal Confederate sympathiser. His rich vocals impress on the emotionally wrought ‘The Ballad of Booth’, his performance perhaps even stronger than that which won him a Sydney Theatre Award in January. Maxwell Simon, playing the relentlessly optimistic Balladeer charged with narrating proceedings, does a terrific job with the show’s wordiest songs, and Kate Cole’s outstanding comedic skills make her performance as would-be assassin and political activist Sarah Jane Moore a repeated scene-stealer. That said, each and every other cast member from the 2017 season (Crawford, Fredericksen, Fox, Winston and McDougall) remain tremendous assets to Bryant’s production.
When it comes to the new additions, Jones makes the most of her limited stage time as the anarchical Russian political activist Emma Goldman, said to have inspired Czolgosz to assassinate William McKinley. Similarly, Jones’ portrayal of a Kennedy mourner in the show’s final minutes is lasting in its impact. As Italian immigrant Guiseppe Zangarra, whose bullet was meant for Franklin D. Roosevelt but actually hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, Lucente is strong both in acting and in voice. And as Samuel Byck, who concocted an outlandish plan to hijack a plane and crash it into a Richard Nixon-inhabited White House, Gooley skilfully portrays arguably the fairground’s most sympathetic patron.
Assassins is highly intelligent, provocative and pertinent, but it’s also enormously entertaining. In Bryant’s capable hands, and performed by a cast of the highest calibre, it is precisely what it should be – a stinging commentary on a society that promises its people a prize that most will never have a genuine opportunity to claim.
ASSASSINS – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 1 July, 2018
Where: Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Tickets: From $59.90 + booking fee
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