There’s a particular moment in Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical, Assassins, that drives its point home like a bullet. It comes in the middle of the number, ‘Gun Song’, when Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield, points his weapon at the audience, and pauses for a moment, before resuming his ode. In Selina Cartmell’s version of Assassins for The Gate, the pointed-gun pause is long and drawn-out, bringing to mind for this reviewer Emma Gonzalez’s six-plus minutes of silence at the March for our Lives last month. ‘Gun Song’ with it’s lyric “all you have to do is move your little finger, and you can change the world,” couldn’t be more pertinent.
It’s Cartmell’s second Sondheim show for The Gate. In 2007 she directed Sweeny Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a musical featuring an equally grim fascination with murder. Whereas Sweeny Todd featured one remorseless killer, Assassins is populated by nine, all of whom either assassinated or attempted to, a president of the United States. It begins with John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln and ends with Lee Harvey Oswald shooting John F Kennedy, and in between there’s a dizzy, funny, high-octane exploration of the always slippery motives for assassination, from seeking justice or fame, to desperation to impress, to plain anger at the plight of the ordinary man.
In its vaudevillian celebration of murderous notoriety, Assassins owes much to Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, which hit Broadway three decades earlier. The opening number, ‘Everybody’s Got The Right’ sets out a similar ironic stall – “rich man, poor man, black or white, it’s your apple, take a bite,” the entire cast sings, and the tone is a sour as a stale apple pie. Like Chicago, this is a tale of the twisted underbelly of the American dream.
Bar that opening number, however, Assassins is not peppered with memorable songs. As with all of Sondheim’s later oeuvre, it’s all minor key meanderings and devoid of showstoppers. The nearest thing is ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, a duet sung by Jodie Foster stalker-stroke-would-be Ronald Regan assassin, John Hinckley (Rory Corcoran), and Charles Manson family member-stroke-failed Gerald Ford assassin, Lynette Fromme (Kate Gilmore), which falls a little flat here.
To make up for the lack of hummable tunes, this production clips along at a relentless pace, with a range of strong performances, particularly from Aoibhéann McCann as Lynette Fromme’s accomplice, Sarah Jane Moore, and O’Regan as Charles Guiteau, both of whom display perfect comic timing. Kudos also to Matthew Seadon-Young and Ger Kelly as John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald respectively, both in fine voice.
Sarah Bacon’s minimal set is a traveling carnival, complete with a grinning toothsome clown, and it extends out into the auditorium, with the help of fairy lights and chorus members hawking bags of bonbons and lollipops. Populated by the motley crew of assassins, who wander in and out of time, this carnival – a metaphor for America itself – is all razzle-dazzle. But beneath the showmanship beats a putrid heart that comes fully into focus in the final innings, as Booth and the gang persuade Oswald to “kill innocence” from the window of the Texas Book Depository in Dallas on November 22, 1962.
This isn’t an easy show, there are few hummable tunes, no romance or redemption, and its ending is sickening, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. If you’re looking for a musical that makes you think rather than sing along, you couldn’t ask for better.
Assassins runs at The Gate Theatre until June 9, booking here.
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