Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What's the best way to spend the hottest day of the year Constant Reader? How's about sitting in a 40-seat theatre under a railway arch in Southwark? It works for me - especially if I am seeing one of my favorite Sondheim musicals.But is ASSASSINS a musical? Not in the usual sense of the word. There are not many musicals where one of the leading characters will have two intensely powerful monologues with no solo number to 'cap' them but then the world of ASSASSINS is unpredictable, just as it should be.

Unsurprisingly the show has never found the acclaim it deserves on the Great White Way, no doubt in part to the unflinching light it shines at that most absurd of concepts The American Dream. If allegedly anyone can find fame as the President then surely it follows that anyone can find fame as the President's killer. It's not unusual to say that a Sondheim score haunts you but what I love about ASSASSINS is that John Weidman's morally-questioning book is as powerful and a true equal to the music. Although not without it's flaws one thing this production pointed out strongly is the role of the Balladeer, here played pointedly by Nolan Frederick. As the audience's unofficial guide he is the one who frames the musical numbers of the show's 'historical' assassins - John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Giuseppe Zangara while the 'modern' failed assassins - Sam Byck, Lynette Fromme, Sara Jane Moore and John Hinckley are mostly given scenes by themselves.Towards the end though as the Assassins and the Balladeer argue during the song ANOTHER NATIONAL ANTHEM, the Assassins force the Balladeer from the stage and by doing so remove the show's moral compass... which leads into the wonderfully-written scene where the Assassins seduce and convince the suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald to the course of action that does indeed unify them finally as a group of people to be taken seriously and not just disparate, sad, random acts. Personally I like to believe that's what really happened in the Texas School book depository!

This also echoes the actions of the fairy-tale characters in Sondheim's previous show INTO THE WOODS who sacrifice the onstage narrator to the avenging widow of The Giant because they don't like his superior tone.
As I said the weather on the day we went was sweltering and the confusing and cramped front-of-house area at the Union - seemingly the alleyway between two buildings - didn't bode well for having to spend the next 110 minutes cooped up inside a small auditorium. Thankfully when once inside the space was deliciously air-conditioned although we did have to sit in the cinema-style seats which wobbled alarmingly on a podium - especially when the not-onstage cast sat on the back of it.

As I said the production was not without it's flaws. The scene changes were frustratingly slow for a show that is supposed to keep hitting you with scenes and songs which stalled the momentum of the scene that had gone before and the choreography for THE BALLAD OF CZOLGOSZ - one of my favourite numbers - seemed needlessly tricksy and prop-heavy - especially as the stage directions are in the song - you just need a line of people queuing up to shake hands with President McKinley!
Although I am all for atmosphere, the loud blasts of dry ice from behind us were annoyingly diverting and dissipated above our heads before reaching the stage anyway. There were also one or two dodgy voices in the ensemble although I really liked the idea of having them as presidential bodyguards and I thought their singing of Sondheim's added song SOMETHING JUST BROKE - in which we hear reactions to the killings from ordinary people down the ages - was particularly fine.

Despite all these I have to say this is one of the most enjoyable small-scale Sondheims I have seen. Michael Strassen's production is gloriously unrelenting and he has elicited fine performances from some key members of his cast. Glyn Kerslake and John Barr are two actors who I know more for their concert or cd appearances than for any stage work but here they both gave eye-catching performances as the vain, charismatic Booth and the clearly insane Guiteau, Barr making the most of THE BALLAD OF GUITEAU in which Sondheim used the actual poem that Guiteau recited on the gallows, as he cakewalked and cavorted nearer and nearer to the rope even with his legs tied together.

Adam Jarrell was an impassioned and sympathetic Leon Czolgosz especially in his scene with the brusque but well-meaning Emma Goldman (Lisa Stokke) and Nolan Frederick was fine as The Balladeer.
Just out of interest, I wonder how anarchist Emma Goldman feels in the afterlife about featuring in two Broadway musicals - this and RAGTIME? I'm sure it makes up for the fact she was deported from America in 1917 eh?Leigh McDonald was hugely enjoyable as Sara Jane Moore, the hapless assassin who brings her dog and small son to where she is going to assassinate Gerald Ford. McDonald played her with an attractive zaniness and a genuine sense of desperation.

However the most out-there performance was Nick Holder as the paranoid Samuel Byck who in his two long and engrossing monologues took us deep into the heart of the Assassins' psyche - the irrational sense of grievance, the anger at failed dreams, the realisation that nothing changes whoever is in power. Holder was frightening, hilarious, grotesque and tragic within seconds of each other.
What I loved so much about this production is that unlike the recent trend of small-scale shows this one had musicians - yes, SIX real musicians - who got on with playing the score leaving the actors free to get on with their job.

This remarkable work which showcases one of Sondheim's most gloriously theatrical scores will continue to linger long in the mind and will always intrigue me to revisit it's dark carnival of killers.

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