Theatre Review: Assassins claims a victim (and wins hearts) on opening night (Sydney Opera House to 1st July)

It takes extraordinary strength of character (both in personality and portrayal) to deliver a flawless performance while one of your leads is being rushed to hospital with a serious injury, but that is what the cast of Assassins did on opening night at the Sydney Opera House this week. A sharply designed, brilliantly performed production, Assassins is yet another hit from the Hayes Theatre Company which thoroughly deserves the chance to entertain bigger audiences in its new Opera House digs.

First, though, we should address the elephant in the dressing room. While it feels wrong to let an accident influence a review about the success or failure of a production, how a cast and crew handles the unexpected speaks volumes about their commitment and professionalism. The incident in reference here occurred on Tuesday night’s opening performance at the end of Bobby Fox’s physically demanding rendition of The Ballad of Guiteau. Fox appeared to fall awkwardly on his leg and left the stage at the conclusion of the scene. Very soon thereafter, David Campbell interrupted the action on stage to announce there had been an accident and there would be a short (unplanned) interval. The show resumed approximately 10 minutes later with director Dean Bryant advising Fox was seriously injured and on his way to hospital. The performers powered on through to the end with an assistant producer standing in for Fox. The cast and crew would no doubt have been extremely rattled by the incident but delivered the remaining 30+ minutes with courage and class. It was a testament to their competence and focus, both of which are factors that make this production immensely watchable.

Stephen Sondheim‘s Assassins is one of those ‘forgotten’ musicals that is often overlooked by companies opting for more traditional fare. But it is immensely relevant in today’s times of American civil unrest and also gives the performers a chance to really sink their teeth into some fascinating roles. Told through a series of non-linear vignettes, a collage of crazies take turns revealing what drove them to try to kill an American President. Some stories you will know (for example, how actor John Wilkes Booth became the first assassin by taking the life of Abraham Lincoln) while others shine a light on less familiar – but no less compelling – would-be killers. A basic knowledge of American history will get you through, although you may (like me) miss a few in-jokes and cheeky nods to the inner workings of these infamous criminals.

The red, white and blue of American patriotism runs deep in Assassins, whose message is essentially that in the land of the free anyone can grow up to be President, or to shoot one. The songs are profound; the monologues even more so.

Set and Costume Designer, Alicia Clements, has partnered with Lighting Designer, Ross Graham, to create a set that speaks beautifully to this flawed, nationalistic dream. Opting for a simple black backdrop and stage floor lined to resemble a shooting target, the prop-pieces and lighting do all the work. Less shooting gallery, more fairground warehouse or abandoned storage unit, the stage is littered with artefacts that embody the endless search for entertainment and diversion. There are neon palm trees, a broken pinball machine, a row of theatre seats and even a dodgem car. The effect is reminiscent of Las Vegas’ Neon Boneyard (a kind-of salvage yard for old casino signs), effectively shouting: ‘abandon all hope, ye American dreamers who enter here’.

Adding to the clutter are well timed sound effects and grabs of historical audio, thanks to Sound Designer Nick Walker, reminding us that most of these events have taken place in the modern era. To really put yourself in the mood, take your seat in the theatre early and listen to the radio soundtrack playing in the background; it would be funny if it wasn’t so frightening.

On the topic of soundtracks, Musical Director Andrew Worboys and his very small band of musicians do an amazing job of creating a wall of sound (from behind the stage wall). The show tunes drift across a number of different genres but the band manages to make them all fit together stylistically. Ultimately though, the band feels as though it is there as a support act for the cast who do the heavy lifting with Sondheim’s songs.

Campbell (John Wilkes Booth) once again proves that he knows how to command an audience’s attention, both vocally and physically. Sondheim’s music is expertly showcased by Campbell, who also manages the accent with aplomb. In his hands, Booth’s character is a kind of Mephistophelian ringmaster, determined to give value to his crime by coaxing others down the same path.

Prior to his injury, Fox was revelling in the flamboyant, bat-shit crazy role of Charles Guiteau. Fox has a wonderful sense of play and is not afraid to push a character to the edge of theatrical realism. His voice blends beautifully with Campbell’s and Jason Winston (Leon Czolgosz) during the barbershop quartet number, The Gun Song.

Winston himself makes a nice straight-man against the showiness of the other characters. His performance is subtler and more inwardly focused, in keeping with the nature of Czolgosz, and certainly no less impressive than his counterparts. Similarly, his singing voice is assured and rich.

The fourth member of the quartet, which is clearly a highlight of the show, is Kate Cole. As Sara Jane Moore, the housewife with an itchy trigger finger, Cole is comedy gold. Her timing is impeccable and her face expertly renders every one of her character’s thoughts.

It is difficult to pick a favourite from the talented cast, but for mine the best performance comes from Anthony Gooley, who is creepy AF as Samuel Byck. Byck’s story is delivered through two rambling monologues (as opposed to songs) that are spoken into a recording device. Despite the comical setting, Gooley makes these scenes feel all too real, as if you were listening to the original recordings. From his trembling hands to his thought-filled silences, Gooley embodies his character in a deeply nuanced way not often seen on a musical stage.

Director Bryant has assembled a wonderful group of creatives, all of whom seem like they required little in the way of hand-holding. Whether this was actually the case, or if Bryant did in fact operate with a heavy hand, the result is a slick, practised production that flows seamlessly and breathes new life into a forgotten musical treasure.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Assassins is playing at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until 1st July. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Tuesday 12th June.