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theatre review

Assassins

  • Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
  • Book by John Weidman
  • Directed by Adam Brazier
  • At the Theatre Centre in Toronto

The United States of America, it's said, is a country where anyone can grow up to be president.

If you find that admirable side of American life inspiring, you might want to fly over to Berlin to see the recent German headline-grabbing hit, Hope: The Obama Musical Story.

If, however, you find Alger Hiss more intriguing than Horatio Alger, if you're less interested in socially mobile Americans than morbidly antisocial ones, you'll much prefer Assassins.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's 1991 musical, currently getting a low-budget but high-calibre revival in Toronto directed by Adam Brazier, takes a sardonic look at the dark side of the American Dream, the USA where anyone can grow up to shoot a president.

Set up as a nightmare carnival, the show begins with a barmy barker (Martin Julien) inviting passers-by to step right up and take a shot at the commander-in-chief. "Everybody's got a right to their dreams," goes the opening number's upbeat chorus.

The men and women who take up the barker's offer range from the enduringly infamous such as John Wilkes Booth to Trivial Pursuit stumpers like Giuseppe Zangara. (Zangara tried to off president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, but his aim was off.)

This motley crew have their reasons for treason - anarcho-syndicalist beliefs, a burning desire to be the ambassador to France, a burning desire for Jodie Foster - but one by one the earnest Balladeer (the fresh-faced and too-quiet Geoffrey Tyler) punctures their delusions with his upbeat riposte. He notes that you might be able to kill a president, but you can never kill the President.

Conspicuously absent from the lineup of losers at the start is Lee Harvey Oswald; he eventually does make an appearance, however, through a clever bit of doubling that gives some semblance of an arc to what might otherwise be no more than a skewed Schoolhouse Rock! revue.

That trick is nicked from Joe Mantello's 2004 Broadway revival, but good on Brazier for knowing to steal from the best. He and musical director Reza Jacobs also take a page from director (not TV columnist) John Doyle's recent stagings of Sondheim and have their acting ensemble double as musicians, augmented by a four-piece band.

The actor-musician model has its downsides, certainly. In this case, it leads to an aggressive and trumpet-heavy arrangement that sometimes feels like a concert by the Canadian Brassassins, and the actors unused to singing with microphones occasionally get drowned out.

Over all, however, as with Doyle's Sweeney Todd, the cacophony is a great fit with the mad, monstrous material. And there's something undeniably delicious about watching John Wilkes Booth playing the saxophone in a spotlight in a sort of demonic inversion of then presidential candidate Bill Clinton's appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992.

Another marvellous musical moment comes in Gun Song, in which a trio of successful shooters - Booth, James Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau (Steve Ross) and William McKinley murderer Leon Czolgosz (Mike Ross) - sing in and oh-so-sweet harmony: "All you have to do is move your little finger - and you can change the world."

Steve Ross is truly splendid as the deluded Guiteau, a nice mix of comic and chilling, while Graham Abbey gives an intense performance as the borderline-sane Sam Byck, the almost fathomable working stiff who tried to hijack a plane and crash it into Richard Nixon's White House. (In this production, he drives around in a car made of McDonald's and Chia Pet advertisements creatively designed by Beth Kates.)

The standouts abound. The silvery-voiced Paul McQuillan finds just the right note of theatricality as Booth, an actor who cast himself in a bit part in history. And Eliza-Jane Scott's performance as the loopy Sara Jane Moore, who tried to kill Gerald Ford, is a car crash you cannot look away from.

Trish Lindstrom as "Squeaky" Fromme, the other woman who tried to kill Ford, occasionally takes her character a little too far over the edge. But the only cast member who really misses the mark is Julien, who struggles with diction and his lower notes and gets the show off to a muddy start.

And you do want to hear the words that Sondheim wrote for these songs that range in era-appropriate style from John Philip Souza marches to soft rock. The lyrics are incredibly well crafted, as in How I Saved Roosevelt, when bystanders explain how if it weren't for their actions, "We'd have been left/ bereft of FDR."

Brazier's production - with Barrie's Talk is Free Theatre and Toronto's Birdland Theatre - may be a bit dishevelled here and there, but it's an absolutely delirious theatrical experience.

Assassins continues at the Theatre Centre, 1087 Queen St. W. in Toronto, until Feb. 20.