Upon entering the Theatre Centre on Queen West you are immediately confronted with a tacky third-rate carnival. It is here that Adam Brazier unleashes a powerful production of the John Weidman-Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins.

Ever since its first tentative production, which had the misfortune to open two weeks after the Gulf War broke out, through its triumphant Broadway revival in 2004 (shut down when the Republican convention came to town that summer) the show has always been controversial, and not everyone’s idea of a fun little musical comedy. Oh it’s fun...some scenes are screamingly funny - but it’s a big show with a lot to say, and not always the comforting aphorisms that musical comedy audiences are often seeking.

Bringing together nine characters who took shots at various U.S.A. presidents, Weidman’s script sometimes goes too far for a satiric point, but listen to the aching sadness in Sondheim’s score. “It takes a lot of men to make a gun”, Leon Czolgosz sings at one point. It also takes a lot of people to put on a show like this and Talk Is Free Theatre was fortunate to have engaged Adam Brazier to direct.

Brazier feels no need to trick up the material, so he sets the various assassins on course and lets the actors have their way, reining them in before anyone slides to far into the realm of caricature. The sketches are short and incisive, and the songs are given ample opportunity to shine.

At least part of the credit for this should be given to musical director Reza Jacobs who keeps the 4-piece ensemble in balance with the singers and then utilizes the cast to accentuate key scenes with their own  musicianship. It is one time when the actor/musician concept works very effective without becoming a distracting stunt.

The cast seems ideally chosen with standouts including Paul McQuillan as the vainglorious actor John Wilkes Booth, Trish Lindstrom as the Charles Manson groupie Squeaky Fromme and Steve Ross as the flamboyant Charles Guiteau.

Kate Hewlwt offer a passionate cameo showing Emma Goldman’s tough and tender sides, Christopher Stanton is a gawky John Hinkley Jr, and Eliza-Jane Scott makes a perfectly inept Sarah Jane Moore.

The final scene between McQuillan’s Booth and Geoffrey Tyler’s Oswald builds to a shattering climax. This  is the stuff musical theatre mavens live for.

As Canadians we can stand back and look at a piece like this through different eyes, but as you watch this fine ensemble cast turn out such well tuned performances you’ll understand immediately why in the U.S. this remains one of Sondheim’s least performed shows.

Assassins, a co-production between Birdland Theatre and Talk is Free Theatre  continues Mondays through Saturdays at the Theatre Centre, 1087 Queen St. West until February 20. Tickets for all performances are $33 and may be reserved at

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From This Author Mark Andrew Lawrence

Mark Andrew Lawrence began his broadcasting career as music director for St. Catharines radio station CHRE. After six years there and eight years at classical (read more...)