BWW Review: ASSASSINS, Watermill Theatre
The thing (well, one of them and there's plenty of them in this show) about Stephen Sondheim, is that his stuff is so strange. He may have theatres named after him on Broadway and on Shaftesbury Avenue, but that doesn't make him commercial, doesn't make him sentimental, doesn't make him cuddly ol' Stevie. It does make him interesting and ever so slightly disturbing though.
30 years ago, he wrote a musical about the assassins of American presidents - failures and successes (the assassins that is, though the same could be said for the presidents, who generally veered to the right of that spectrum after the bullets whistled towards them). Charles Gilbert Jr had the idea and John Weidman wrote the book, but this show got produced because it has music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Guns are handed out, targets are set up and the assassins come forward to tell their stories, sometimes individually, sometimes collectively - like some hellish glee club.
John Wilkes Booth (a saturnine Alex Mugnaioni) is the daddy of them all, seeing off Abe Lincoln at the theatre, getting revenge for his bad reviews and the dashed hopes of The South. He weaves in and out of the show, the ringmaster of the losers who parade their entitlement and enhanced sense of grievance.
Right there is the show's biggest flaw. We never really get to know the assassins who are more caricatures than characters for all the vim of the acting, a set of psychotic tics that explode into violence at various levels of competence.
So hippie chick, Lynette Fromme (Evelyn Hoskins), becomes a Charlie Manson automaton and her sidekick, Sara Jane Moore (Sara Poyzer), a deranged, ditzy divorcée out to shoot (and miss) Gerald Ford. Any more to it?
Eddie Elliott powers up his evangelical Charles Guiteau to the max and Jack Quarton gets the psychotic loner / stalker just right for John Hinckley. Steve Simmonds tops the lot, bringing the noise and the profanity to Samuel Byck, who made it to the cockpit of the plane he intended to fly into the White House to off Richard Nixon - if Tarantino had directed John Candy...
Inevitably, backstories are sketchy at best, and often not even that, and the psychological insight thin - white lone wolves with a grouch against society, sometimes legitimate, sometimes not. That element of the show feels dated and glib.
Which cannot be said about the music nor the performances!
If Sondheim can be criticised for not writing (or maybe refusing to write) catchy tunes - the hookiest hook in this show is a wild reprise of "America" from West Side Story, natch) - the melodies are never less than engaging and lyrics predictably pyrotechnic in their use of language.
The songs are inspired by the music of the assassins' time, but that's hard to discern amongst all those gorgeous notes. It doesn't matter really. It does make the inexplicably long talky segments a bit annoying though - couldn't we have had another song please?
The ensemble cast are fantastic, pulling off the miraculous Watermill Theatre schtick of hopping from one instrument to another, from actor to musician, from character to player. Bill Buckhurst - who knows a thing or two about compressing Sondheim into a small space after his smash hit Pie Shop Sweeney Todd - marshals his talent with economy and assurance.
It's thought-provoking, entertaining and fascinating all at once. And relevant - although these days, it's the presidents who are shooting the public.
Photo - The Other Richard