Long before people were scratching their heads about a hip hop musical centered on one of the U.S. founding fathers, they were similarly scratching their heads over a musical about failed and successful attempts to kill the Presidents of the United States. Stephen Sondheim, as always, was ahead of the curve.
Assassins tells the story of the seven men and two women throughout American history who have taken a shot at the guy in the White House. Sondheim and book writer John Weidman take us to an otherworldly carnival in which the proprietor invites the disillusioned would-be assassins to “come here and shoot a president”. And thus begins one of Sondheim’s more conceptualized concept musicals. Mixed with actual scenes including John Wilkes Booth in a burning barn after shooting Abraham Lincoln, and fantasies where the shooters commiserate over beers in some hole-in-the-wall pub, the script and score play with time and space in a way Sondheim first explored in his earlier hit Company.
Like many of the assassins themselves, the musical has its own storied history. Premiering off-Broadway in 1991, the show was ready for revival in 2001 but was shelved to 2004 following the events of 9/11. For better or worse, Assassins seems to be eternally relevant.
Which brings us to Whale Song Theatre’s current production of Assassins, opening last night in the cramped, but filled to the rafters, Bus Stop Theatre. The production, like the assassins themselves, has its fair share of hits and misses.
Let’s start with what’s on target (I’ll stop with the shooting references soon, I promise).
With a likely limited budget, production elements in the show are uniformly successful. Dutch Swindells’ distressed carnival set works in tandem with Shanlon Gilbert’s clever projections to never leave the audience in doubt of our location, a must in a show that jumps from location to location on a dime.
Prop designer Ian Richards, along with director Ian Gilmore, has a lot of fun introducing us to a number of presidents through cleverer and cleverer manifestations. Hannah Burgos and Eleanor Gillies-Neilsen costume the large cast of thirteen nicely, though a few pieces miss the mark on period accuracy. The only place where design elements really falter are a series of unfortunate wigs. In such a small space, wigs better be good or they’re just distracting.
In a show where the majority of the characters are men, director Gilmore made the decision, be it through want or necessity, to cast several of the male characters with women in drag. This works to varying degrees of success.
Most successful is Ali House as Sam Byck, Richard Nixon’s would-be assassin. Decked out in a Santa Claus outfit and fat suit, House spews her way through Weidman’s clever monologues, and while her accent sometimes runs into Tony Soprano territory, she presented Byck as a three dimensional character, which is not an easy thing to do in a play where characters pop on- and off-stage so frequently.
As Giuseppe “Joe” Zangara, who attempted to assassinate FDR, Cat McClusky lets her accent do the work as she swaggers about the stage complaining of stomach pains. Julia Topple’s Balladeer, while sung well, lacks the drive required for the narrator of the story, and may have benefited from making the balladeer female, especially when some of the best performances of the evening come from women actually playing women.
The best voice of the night was Sasha Paikin who plays Squeaky Fromme, who made an attempt on U.S. President Gerald Ford’s life in 1975. While her valley girl Fromme lacked some of the grit and fire one might expect from a Manson follower, her “Unworthy of Your Love” duet with Tyler Craig as Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley, was a musical highlight. That said, towards the end of the song Craig beings to masturbate after complaining of his impotence, in what felt like a failed attempt at shock value.
Another highlight on the acting front was Laura Thornton as one of President Ford’s other would-be assassins, Sara Jeanne Moore. While obviously several years too young for the five-times married Moore, Thompson goes to town, literally and figuratively, on a bucket of KFC while delivering one of the evening’s most realistic performances.
The men don’t fare as well though in this production, with a few exceptions. While Tyler Craig delivered a nuanced portrayal of Hinckley, a failure in life, love and ultimately, assassination, one of the best performances of the evening is Andrew Chandler as Lincoln assassinator, John Wilkes Booth.
Chandler delivers at times a terrifying portrayal of “the man who started it all” and while he did not possess the necessary power vocally, there’s no doubt who’s in charge each time he is on stage.
As President William McKinley killer Leon Czolgosz, Tris Healy is not only barely audible, but seems as though he would rather be anywhere else. As Charlie Guiteau, Mike Chandler delivers some of the best lines of the evening but his musical number “Look on the Bright Side” fell flat. As the proprietor, Leigh Fitzner-Leblanc should grab the audience with the first song of the evening; unfortunately he looked lost, and vocally didn’t reach the third row.
Playing a multitude of roles, the ensemble consisting of Katelyn Barker, Jakob Creighton, and Sarah Smith, do some nice work throughout the evening, however they too suffered from volume issues. Requiring them to go through a dizzying number of costume changes in the penultimate song “Something Just Broke” didn’t help.
Ultimately sound was the biggest killer (I’ll stop soon I promise) on opening night and while it would be easy to say Sarah Richardson’s tight three piece band, buried somewhere in the confines of the Bus Stop Theatre, is to blame, much of the dialogue was also lost. Microphones should not be a necessity in a small black box theatre like the Bus Stop, but they may have helped here. Many of Sondheim’s best lyrics never made it to the first row and in a non-linear show like this, if they audience can’t hear what’s going on they’ll be quickly lost.
One more word about the band: though greatly reduced in size, it never feels slight. This is a huge testament to the players and to Richardson’s orchestral ability in making the three musicians sound like many more.
It is obvious the cast and creative team have great love for this show, but Sondheim’s precise lyrics and complex music present a challenge for any actor or theatre company. While there is much to like in this production, one can only wonder what might have been achieved if this shot was closer to a bullseye.
Assassins with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman. A Whale Song Theatre production. On stage at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen St, Halifax) until June 30. Tickets are available through Eventbrite or visit whalesongtheatre.com for more information.