In an era where the American population is becoming increasingly disenfranchised by their presidential representation, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman‘s early nineties cult musical Assassins is the perfect salve for the current world turmoil. Black Swan State Theatre Company interprets this unique musical as a stripped back ensemble piece that sends a strong message, and really hits the mark! It’s a non-linear work that spans eras and collides them all together in the whirly-gig of a funfair.
Assassins sees all nine people who attempted or succeeded to assassinate a president and explores all of their motives (surprise surprise: it’s mostly to be heard!) There is a temptation to stage a Sondheim musicalwith an overblown, and elaborate set, yet Director Roger Hodgman strips back the set and dance numbers and creates a streamlined work that focuses on the compelling characters. Lawrie Cullen-Tait‘s set is at once epic in scale and simple – consisting of large, timeless stone archways that double up as projection screens, and a clever wooden American flag design that becomes the literal platform for the disenfranchised to be able to speak.
Luke Hewitt cuts an impressive figure as the Propieter who provides the would-be assassins (bar Oswald) with their guns in a funfair where they can ‘shoot a president.’ The charming Balladeer (Finn Alexander) provides a narrator’s voice while explaining who each assassin is. Exploding onto the stage in his debut, Alexander’s voice is powerful and inspirational. He begins by providing the narrator’s voice in The Ballad of Booth – a Western-style ballad as the assassins’ pioneer John Wilkes-Booth (Brendan Hansen) attempts to justify his rationale behind being the first to assassinate a President. Hansen’s deep voice and uncanny southern accent is compelling and blends well with Alexander’s more youthful and less jaded sound.
The re-imagined conversations between the group of assassins is compelling – each maintains their distinct personality and are unified in their motivation. Caitlin Beresford-Ord and Mackenzie Dunn have wonderful chemistry as their characters Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme respectively share a funny and empathetic exchange and bond over KFC and Charlie Manson. Will O’Mahony is fantastic as Charles Guiteau – the man who killed President Garfield in 1881. He is lovable and irreverent – even when climbing the gallows, O’Mahony maintains his unflappable positivity.
Every actor is phenomenal, yet newcomer Nick Eynaud provides one of the most poignant moments, along with the wonderfully talented Dunn in Unworthy of Your Love – in which he sings to Jodie Foster and she to Charles Manson in a bid to be noticed. As compelling as all of the stories are, it is the book-ends of the work that are the most important events: Wilkes-Booth assassinating Lincoln and Lee Harvey Oswald – John F. Kennedy. In a spine-tingling moment, Alexander as the Balladeer gives up on trying to convince the assassins that there is a better way, and becomes Oswald. The set is filled with boxes and the chilling Texas School Book Depository takes shape. The use of lighting and projection is exceptional – Mark Howett – a true heavyweight in the lighting scene – creates entire worlds through projection and colour schemes – red in blood and claw, and lurid green creating a sickening effect – a funfair world gone wrong. And of course, the sickening, famous footage of that fateful cavalcade in 1963.
Each piece of music is reflective of its era, and references the big American musicals, yet maintains Sondheim’s distinct sound. Hodgman’s stunning direction references the old musicals with satirical ‘big’ dance numbers like The Ballad of Czolgosz – the receiving line for an audience with William McKinley becomes a literal line dance; the era of big radio is referenced in an ‘Annie‘ style swing song juxtaposed by a writhing Guiseppe Zangara (Nathan Stark) being executed in an electric chair (How I Saved Roosevelt.)
Assassins is bit of a forgotten gem. It’s a fine example of Sondheim’s dark take on the classic American songbook – there are pieces that sound like they’re straight out of the early musicals. Black Swan State Theatre Company have really outdone themselves this time – Assassins is a hit!
Review | Laura Money
WHEN: 16 June – 1 July 2018 | 7:30pm
WHERE: Heath Ledger Theatre | State Theatre WA | PERTH
INFO: Tickets $35 – $67 | Duration 95 mins | No interval | Adult themes, coarse language, sex & drug references, smoking on stage, strobe/flashes; simulated executions and gun violence | Suitability 16+