Another musical revival in the wake of British classics Evita and Cats comes from the other side of the Pond. Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, first performed in 1990, has opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory, starring Catherine Tate as Sara Jane Moor, one of the would-be assassins of President Gerald Ford. In Jamie Lloyd’s production, the emphasis is on the dark side of the American Dream – nine historical figures venting their frustrations on the highest power, the president of the United States. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they hit (large ‘hit’ and ‘miss’ signs on either side of the auditorium light up accordingly), and all the while Simon Lipkin as the mad Proprietor propels the action in this jewel of musical theatre.
Designed by Soutra Gilmour, the show transforms the Menier space into a faded and joyless fun fair with abandoned rides and popcorn, a dusty stage for popular entertainment and political murder to take place in a revue-style frame. It’s wonderfully immersive and there often is too much to take in – which is where Lloyd’s craft comes in, directing our gaze in the whirlwind of events great and small.
The cast is superb. Jamie Parker as the Balladeer strums his banjo with a mischievous smile, challenging those whose grievances have reached boiling point; later, he is Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s murderer. Egged on by a group of his predecessors, who paint him a picture of eternal fame, he imagines himself like Brutus: immortalised in the annals of history by taking out the boss. John Wilkes Booth (Aaron Tveit) assures him: “You are the one who’s gonna sum it all up, and blow it all wide open!”. The rest is history.
Others passing review include Mike McShane as white-hot Samuel Byck, who attempted to fly a plane into Nixon’s White House; Carly Bawden as one of Charles Manson’s lovers Lynette Fromme; and Harry Morrison as John Hinckley, in love with Jodie Foster and aiming to get her attention by killing Reagan. Throughout, the nods to the ease of obtaining a gun betray one of many critical undertones, as current today as they were in 1990.
Sondheim’s music is a treat for its depth, diversity and lyrical wit and vigour. In Assassins, the musical numbers reflect the popular tunes of the era, so we go from nineteenth century ballads to much more modern sounds in, for example, ‘Everybody’s Got the Right’, the cynical closing statement about individual freedom and social mobility sung by the whole company.
This production offers a fresh and highly accomplished look at Sondheim’s work in a visually stunning and perfectly cast show. Musical theatre at its best and most thrilling.
Assassins is playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7 March 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Menier Chocolate Factory website. Photo by Nobby Clark.