Dean Bryant has directed two of the Hayes Theatre Co’s most successful, defining productions – Sweet Charity which launched the Hayes as a venue dedicated to musical theatre in 2014, and last year’s Little Shop of Horrors.
Expectations were inevitably sky-high when it was announced that Bryant would helm the Hayes’ first Sondheim musical, Assassins, produced by Lisa Campbell. Well, praise be, Assassins is another stunningly inventive production in which every single element comes together brilliantly.
The cast of Assassins. Photograph © Phil Erbacher
The show is a darkly entertaining, revue-style musical about nine men and women who tried to assassinate US presidents, four of them successfully, for reasons ranging from genuine social grievances to gnawing physical pain to the crazed desire to impress a celebrity or lover, and even perhaps a slew of bad acting reviews. First staged in 1991, it feels utterly timely.
The would-be assassins are disaffected, deluded people who feel they have been sold a lie – exploited, ignored or under-valued when they were promised the American Dream. Not for nothing does Sondheim’s book writer John Weidman have John Wilkes Booth specifically quote Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: “attention must be paid”.“Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” goes one of the lines in the opening song. “The country is not what it was,” snarls Booth. Hello, Trump supporters.
The show begins at a tawdry fairground where the proprietor of a shooting gallery urges angry, disenfranchised folk to “c’mere and kill a president.” Then, in a series of vignettes it moves through history from Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln during a theatre performance to 1865 to John Hinckley Jr. who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981 to impress Jodie Foster who he was obsessed with after seeing her play the child prostitute in Taxi Driver.
Others include Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a hippie in thrall to Charles Manson who planned to shoot Gerald Ford in 1975, Sara Jane Moore who also had her sights set on Ford, and Leon Czolgosz who worked in a bottle factory for a paltry wage, became an anarchist and shot William McKinley with a $4.50 gun at point blank range in 1901. The show ends with all the assassins, led by Booth, coercing Lee Harvey Oswald into assassinating John F Kennedy in 1963 to give their lives meaning.
Kate Cole and Bobby Fox. Photograph © Phil Erbacher
Bryant’s production never leaves the fairground, retaining it as the gaudy backdrop for the show – and it works a treat as these freaks, misfits and firebrands strut their stuff and interact in a kind of limbo. Alicia Clements has designed a stunning set. With a shiny floor, the Hayes has never looked bigger and yet at the same time Clements creates a sense of claustrophobia, filling the tiny, intimate space with umpteen signs ringed by coloured lights, cheap looking cut-outs of palm trees, posters of the US presidents who will be in the firing line, a beaten-up bumper car (cleverly used in scenes featuring Samuel Byck and the assassination of JFK), a merry-go-round horse and a couple of pinball machines for the encounter between Hinckley and Fromme. It has just the right tacky, glitzy, carnival feel for a show that explores the dark side of the American Dream.
Musically, the show does something similar with lots of bright melodies undercut by dark, frighteningly truthful lyrics. The catchy score includes Sousa marches, cakewalks, folk numbers, show tunes and pop ballads, drawing on the era of each particular assassin, performed with gusto by a crack five-piece band under the joint musical direction of Andrew Worboys and Steven Kreamer.
David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth. Photograph © Phil Erbacher
Bryant has assembled an exceptional cast with no weak link, all of them strong actors with great singing across the board. David Campbell brings riveting authority and charisma to the role of John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor and Confederate sympathiser; Martin Crewes has a dark, brooding quality as Giuseppe Zangara, a man driven mad by chronic stomach pains; Bobby Fox has a crazed look in the eye and manic smile as Charles Guiteau who fancied himself as the US Ambassador to France; and Justin Smith radiates festering, warped anger as the depressed Samuel Byck in his filthy Santa suit as he records messages to Leonard Bernstein and threatens to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House.
Connor Crawford captures the weedy, creepiness of John Hinkley; Hannah Frederiksen is perfect as the ditsy hippie Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme who is convinced that Charles Manson is the son of God; and Kate Cole is very funny as the klutzy Sara Jane Moore who had five husbands and four children but little career success.
Maxwell Simon, who is making his professional debut, having recently graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts, gives a terrific performance as the balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, capturing the latter’s vulnerability, confusion and fatal lack of self-esteem. Laura Bunting as anarchist Emma Goldman and a woman distraught at news of the death of JFK, Rob McDougall as the fairground proprietor, and Jason Kos as Leon Czolgosz complete the fine cast.
Choreographer Andrew Hallsworth keeps the action flowing seamlessly, as the assassins watch each other from different parts of the set, and does a great job of differentiating their very different physicality – from Campbell’s poised, commanding Booth with erect posture, to the slobbish Byck and hunched, weedy Hinckley.
Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen. Photograph © Phil Erbacher
Hallsworth has also choreographed a razzle-dazzling dance routine for The Ballad of Guiteau in which Charles Guiteau faces his hanging, quoting a poem “I am going to the Lordy”. Capering with a rope of lights, Fox nails Guiteau’s hysterical optimism, though there is room to find more of his panic and fear beneath the bravado, which would give it an even stronger impact. Still, it’s a memorable, show-stopping moment. And if vaudevillian comedy sometimes trumps emotion at other moments, the production still has an extraordinary, unforgettable power.
Culminating in the moving, disturbing Something Just Broke before segueing back into the jaunty Everybody’s Got the Right, Assassins is stunning theatre and yet one more example of why the Hayes is such an invaluable addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene, staging wildly intelligent, inventive productions of shows we would be unlikely to see otherwise. Tickets are selling like hot cakes, so bag one now.
Assassins plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point until October 22.