Tonight I saw opening night of StageWorks new production of Assassins, an occasion that any serious fan of the musical theatre form must celebrate. The score by Stephen Sondheim is challenging. The material in John Weidman’s book is electrifying, and at one time was too powerful to be presented. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that is so dense with meanings, because there’s so much going on. If you’re a fan of good musical theatre, if you enjoy political humour you mustn’t miss the chance to see this wonderful play.
In the 1970s H ‘Rap’ Brown said “violence is as American as cherry pie,” a saying that Weidman and Sondheim seemed to embrace. Histories usually tell us of great men, wars & inventions and the people in power. Assassins is an anti-history, at first glance glorifying people usually condemned & hated. We’re in a realm thick with irony, because of course the play is brutally truthful. While we hear the story of Lincoln’s assassination from the point of view of John Wilkes Booth, he is razzed unmercifully. This actor turned killer is skewered by the Balladeer:
Some say it was your voice had gone
Some say it was booze.
They say you killed a country, John
Because of bad reviews
And so we meet both successful killers such as Leon Czolgosz (of William McKinley), Charles Guiteau (of James Garfield) and Lee Harvey Oswald (of JFK), and would-be killers such as Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley. In every case we’re presented with unhappy people who would use guns as a pathway to a sort of happiness. For almost the entire play we’re submerged in that inverted world, only rarely coming back to the surface for a reality check. Any production of Assassins faces some interesting tonal choices. The material includes some of the darkest images in any musical and strong challenges to the intelligence of the audience. But Sondheim and Weidman never expected mainstream acceptance or success. It was perhaps ahead of its time when written. But now? The work can still be treated with great seriousness, yet much of what they’ve written can be presented as black comedy. Assassins is like a psychological barometer of an audience, testing their mental health. I remember seeing the play years ago, in a room full of silent reverent listeners, looking at me as though I was strange when I laughed. Tonight? I couldn’t help thinking that we –North American culture—have come a long way. I’ve never seen a production with so many laughs, so many moments that were light and fun. Yes, there’s still lots of serious political content. But maybe after years of Jon Stewart and Michael Moore, our political sophistication gives us the ability to laugh rather than just cry. I have to think this is progress, a healthier way to be. I know that I felt really great at the end of the show, and surely that’s what Sondheim & Weidman would have wanted, even if it seemed far off back at the beginning of the millennium.
The Stage Works production is being presented in the intimate George Ignatieff theatre, powerfully supported by a seven-member band led from the piano by music director Tom Kerr. Large sections are through composed, although from time to time we’re in a realm of dialogue, often riotously funny. The most stirringly emotional moments are sung. But the play doesn’t preach, doesn’t tell us what to think or feel. It simply holds up a mirror, and then defies us not to be overwhelmed by what we see and hear. As with any play you love, there are several favourite moments to look forward to, and the cast did not disappoint. Luke Witt as the Proprietor was the dark instigator, and foil to the warm optimism of Hugh Ritchie’s tuneful Balladeer. Rich Burdett was a terrific combination of strength & vanity as John Wilkes Booth. I’ve always loved the scene between Leon Czolgosz and Emma Goldman, a curious mix of politics and romance that can be one of the warmest moments in the play; Dylan Brenton made a strong but vulnerable Leon, opposite the gentle strength of Suzanne Miller as Emma. Russ Underdown did a fabulous job in one of the toughest songs in the show, namely Guiteau’s cakewalk. Although Kerr took a brisk tempo in most of the songs, which was especially daring in Guiteau’s number (which is challenging both to sing & to dance), it worked beautifully. The three characters whose parts function more as comic relief were especially strong in this production, namely the three failed assassins: Samuel Byck, Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore. Will van der Zyl commanded the stage effortlessly in Byck’s monologues, while Laurie Hurst (Moore) and Christie Stewart (Fromme) had several explosive laughs from the audience. Michael Buchanan has one of the most beautiful moments in the gentle & tentative acoustic guitar intro to “Unworthy of your love”, Hinckley’s duet with Fromme; it serves as an anti-romantic change of pace: madness but of a calmer sort.
StageWorks Assassins continues until July 27th at the George Ignatieff Theatre.