‘Assassins’ was juxtaposing.
“All you have to do is move your little finger and you can change the world.” – Stephen Sondheim, ‘Assassins’.
These could be lyrics from a song in any feel-good musical, inspiring a plucky protagonist to achieve their goals. However, in Javeenbah Theatre Company’s production of ‘Assassins’, they take on a much more frightening tone. Specifically, in motivating the murder of the President of the United States.
‘Assassins’ by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman is a dark and controversial musical that premiered Off-Broadway in 1990. It features a cast of presidential assassins, from John Wilkes Booth, who killed Lincoln, to Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s murderer. The show is framed as a deadly carnival game, where the dissatisfied tackle their problems through presidential assassination but are then condemned by history. In Sondheim’s subversive score and Weidman’s insightful book, ‘Assassins’ parodies the ideal American Dream, by demonstrating how “freedom” can be warped to justify violence and personal vendettas.
Director Katie Grace made apt use of contrast, by theatrically stylising most of the assassinations while maintaining realism throughout the fictional interactions between characters. Grace also emphasised the personal struggles of the more sympathetic characters, such as Leon Czolgosz, to create some incredibly moving performances While effective, at times this seemed to conflict with the message of the work, making the show somewhat less sinister than originally intended. Taylor Holmes provided cogent musical direction, especially within the show highlight, ‘Gun Song’. However, at other times, stray notes reduced the effectiveness of the intricate harmonies.
The varied cast produced some very strong performances. Lee Stoka was an excellent John Wilkes Booth, nailing both his gentlemanly persona and violent outbursts, which was supported by strong vocals. Beans Goodfellow was another standout, with a melodic voice and varied characterisation, from the playful Balladeer to the erratic Lee Harvey Oswald. Kat Brand was hilariously relatable as the semi-lucid Sara Jane Moore, providing a foil to the seriously warped Tabitha Woods as Manson’s lover Lynette Fromme. Simon Stone and Kevin Price were also in juxtaposition, one as the amusingly optimistic Charles Guiteau and the other as the brooding and tragic Leon Czolgosz. The small ensemble also provided an essential function to the story, giving insight into the everyday people who were affected by the assassinations. Courtney Powell’s touching solo in ‘Something Just Broke’ was particularly noteworthy.
Director Katie Grace was also responsible for the versatile set design. With three tiers and three entries at varying heights, it ensured constant variation in spatial relationships and levels. The costumes, by Christine McLachlan, Gillian-Eva Butcher, and Gillian Crow, effectively represented many different time periods, from 1865, with Booth’s suave black tie, to Froome’s flowery dress in 1975. However, for the Proprietor’s costume, which was similar in different time periods, the combination of a waistcoat, t-shirt, and jeans was at times distracting from the otherwise period correct outfits.
From a technical perspective, Colin Crow’s Lighting Design separated the real and fictional events, with contrasts between the brighter and warmer par cans and the cooler and dimmer LEDs. Mikaela Murphy’s clear and realistic sound effects complimented the frequently grandiose music. She also demonstrated commendable presence, resolving early balance issues near immediately. As a whole, the design of the work manifests the inherent contrast of the story.
Javeenbah Theatre Company’s ‘Assassins’ is a show that juxtaposes everything, including its audience, who are always divided by its subject matter and controversial ending. Although clearly not a feel-good night out at the theatre, it is a great choice if you are looking for something a little different. Fans of history, politics and of course Sondheim are sure to find the work engaging and effective. Although less sinister than other interpretations, the contrasting style, and intriguing characters make a meeting with the ‘Assassins’ worthwhile.
‘Assassins’ performs until the 21st of March at Javeenbah Theatre Company. For ticketing and more information visit Javeenbah Theatre Company’s website.