Assassins

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by John Weidman
West 72nd Productions
Landor Theatre
(2008)

Assassins is regarded as one of Sondheim's least accessible pieces not only because of its subject matter (the assassins of US Presidents), but also because the assassins meet anachronistically across centuries, sing and dance and can appear to make light of their actions.

In this production director Ben Carrick has elected to give the Balladeer, who has a narrator-style role, the persona of an undergraduate studying the assassins; in doing so he provides a more audience-friendly structure for the action which seems to take place in the student's room.

The concept doesn't hurt the piece but is the injection of a contemporary student a device to make it more relevant nearly thirty years after its first production? Carrick maintains, "I don't think it's a show where you can dwell on the modern relevancies but I think it will always be relevant because it's about the American dream … the idea that anyone can grow up to be famous."

I could take issue with that but here the focus is neither its contemporary significance nor the American dream; here, in concentrating on the characters and relationships of the assassins, the production has a different slant.

Since it is the characters that are put under the spotlight the acting has to be strong enough to bear the scrutiny and on the whole it succeeds. Christopher Ragland is an excellent John Wilkes Booth, powerfully persuasive when he convinces Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy, but only he and Jeff Nicholson, as the deranged Guiteau, provide a sinister edge to an otherwise largely un-disturbing production.

As the student/Balladeer (Nathan Kiley) reports on the action it is more observation than incisive commentary but his youthful smile explains this student's lack of insight; I would also prefer Graham Waver's John Hinckley to be a little more Demon Barber and a little less Nutty Professor but the piece and the concept do not suffer unduly.

However, some depth is lost in the production - there is no scary madness in brainwashed Fromme when she declares her love for mass murderer Charles Manson: "I would crawl belly-deep through hell, Baby, I'd die for you... you are wind and devil and god, take my blood" are not conventional declarations of love but there is nothing unsettling in this rendition of the Hinkley and Fromme duet.

More importantly I missed the cutting sarcasm and bitterness of Byck and the unease at his prescient intention to crash a plane into the White House; given that the focus for this production is the characters of the assassins, a weak Byck is a lost opportunity.

The cast sang extremely well under the baton of Musical Director Richard Bates whose orchestrations were very effective and well-suited to the small space. The clarinet played by Nicola Turner provided some subtly haunting effects and it was a treat to have a five piece band - and a good one at that - in such a small venue.

Alex Browne (Zangara) and Sebastian Palka (Czolgosz) pulled off the hard task of delivering challenging Sondheim lyrics in a strong foreign accent with ease and both made their parts memorable; the image of Browne shaking on the electric chair lingers uneasily "Zangara have nothing, Zangara American! American nothing!" he shouts angrily as he faces execution.

Although well sung, the weakest song in the show is "Something Just Broke". Until a few years ago it was not included in the licensed version of Assassins and the piece was, in the opinion of many (myself and Carrick included), all the better for it.

When it became apparent during try-outs that the show would not transfer Sondheim left this song unfinished until a London production was mooted. Was it this irregular nascence that makes this song fit so awkwardly within the show? Sondheim justifies it saying he wanted "from the nation's point of view … a moment where the national grief would be musicalised …".

It is all the more an interference here because the focus is on the characters of the assassins themselves, and for this song the voice shifts inexplicably away from them, but in any production it stands as an unwelcome distraction that detracts from the closing of the piece.

With a band to accommodate in addition to a sizeable cast, designing for this already small space is quite a challenge. The back wall is put to good use to display photographs of each assassin over that of their victim, seemingly an innocent learning aide for the student, until the conclusion of the piece when the student adds his own photograph to the display with an understated implication of menace.

It is an affecting image on which to close whilst still ringing in your ears is "Aim for what you want, Everybody gets a shot …"

"Assassins" runs until 2nd February, Tuesday to Saturday. There is no interval. Performances are sold out but returns may be available.

Sandra Giorgetti