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Assassins

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, from an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr
Union Theatre, Southwark
(2010)

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Assassins' presentation of a disintegrated American Dream sat uncomfortably amidst its contemporaries as much due to its subject matter as its method of delivery, and the package was made all the more difficult to swallow by its emergence at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, a climate in which such commentary was considered unacceptably unpatriotic.

Audiences now seem more accepting of unconventional material (thanks in large part to Sondheim's trailblazing) and Michael Strassen's revival of Assassins at the Union Theatre is sure to have a better reception. And it deserves one. It takes an interesting approach implicating the State retinue in its country's diminishment, and is above average musically and vocally even if some of the dark humour appears lost along the way.

The structure of Assassins is a challenging non-linear account of American history covering 1865 to 1974, taking as its milestones the assassination attempts on US Presidents. With time-crossing short scenes it bears witness to the idealism of the miscreant forebears through to the social derangement of their late twentieth century descendents. Thus, the first, the southerner John Wilkes Booth who assassinated Lincoln for his part in the Civil War and the principled Leon Czolgosz who shot McKinley to further the socialist cause stand in contrast to Lynette "Squeaky" Frome who attempted to kill Ford in order to give Charles Manson, serial killer and leader of the Manson Family cult, a platform to speak at her trial.

Sondheim provides a jaunty score that covers a range of musical styles. In addition to those that come directly from American musical tradition, the hoedowns, barbershop, Sousa marches and so on, he also references Italian tarantella and Polish mazurka for the disillusioned immigrant gunmen.

The lampooning of American musical convention by pairing the tunes with ill-fitting lyrics does not offend a British musical theatre audience as it might an American one but it is impossible to ignore the juxtaposition of disturbing lyric against engaging tune.

The mis-match can add to the unease, as in 1991, though audiences now are unlikely to be as concerned about how they view the assassins themselves: are they inherently sinful and unlikable or has the presentation of their motives together with an entertaining musical backdrop engendered some empathy for the perpetrators? Perhaps back then audiences were just less willing to accept that at least some of them had a point.

The nefarious activities of the nine principals is commented on by the Balladeer who acts as a form of narrator and can even be said to provoke and facilitate their actions. His is the voice the audience can associate with, moral and authoritative. But ultimately the assassins reject him and what he stands for in favour of "Another National Anthem ... For those who never win, For the suckers, for the pikers, For the ones who might have been".

Since director Michael Strassen has given the Balladeer an Obama-like persona his words have refreshing twist of interpretation, and it also provides an up-to-date visual slant allowing much of the support to be carried out by suited and sun-glassed Secret Service bodyguards that could have just come off the set of West Wing.

On the whole the idea works well though one of the closing numbers, 'Something Just Broke', doesn't come off. This is a terrible Sondheim after-thought of a song, added after the original production and lacking redeeming features; here minimalist differentiation between doubled up parts plus the staging seems to deprive it even of clarity.

Some of the parody, and therefore purpose, is lost in the delivery of the Carpenters-style duet which needs to come across as a love song and here is more angry than ardent. The cake walk on the gallows is noticeable by its absence in an otherwise enjoyable performance from John Barr as Charles Guiteau, and for no apparent good reason the hangman is a take-me-to-bed blond beauty in high black boots and a short skirt. Strange directorial choices, but none of them fatal.

Amongst the large cast four performances stand out: Nolan Frederick's sonorous voice is joy to listen to as the Balladeer and Glyn Kerslake makes a very charismatic and authoritative John Wilkes Booth. Leigh McDonald gives a good comic turn as Sara Jane Moore the batty, middle-aged, much divorced single mother who shows just how dangerous battiness can be.

Nick Holder, who was memorably repellent in Little Fish plays unsavoury Byck who planned to crash a plane into Nixon's Whitehouse. He balances Byck's rational thoughts with his madder output and although leaning towards being overworked this is unquestionably one of the strong performances of the evening.

Holder and many of his cohort are vocally strong making for some powerful and high quality ensemble singing (under the musical direction of Michael Bradley) which remains the lasting impression of this entertaining production.

"Assassins" plays until 24 July. There is no interval

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti