Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Tyran Parke. Fortyfivedownstairs Melbourne. 11 – 21 April, 2013

Sondheim is the master of the musical and this little seen dark comedy is delightful in its score. The plot revolves around some of the most and least infamous would-be Presidential assassins in US history. Some names you will know, John Wilkes Booth and John Hinckley, and others are less well known.

Whilst the book by John Weidman is average the performances from the entire ensemble and Sondheim’s marvelous musical numbers more than made up for this.  Mark Dickinson’s portrayal of John Wilkes Booth struck the perfect note between hilarity and tragic irony. Vocally he was powerful. He inhabited the role of the vain actor so completely that the audience felt as if they were living within the character. The duet, The Ballad of Booth, performed by Dickinson and Nick Simpson-Deeks, as the balladeer, was impeccable.  In typical Sondheim fashion each character was required to seamlessly blend what are ostensibly two different songs into one, picking their key out of the air. It was quite simply marvelous and without a doubt the best song of the evening. Simpson-Deeks is an accomplished vocalist and owned his role as the balladeer whilst later transforming into a heart-breaking portrayal of possibly America’s best-known assassin.

Aaron Tsindos gave a brilliant performance at Charles Guiteau, endearing all the way to the gallows. Again Simpson-Deeks was called upon to chronicle the demise of Guiteau as the balladeer creating the second stand out number of the evening. Nadine Garner proved she has great skill as a comedic theatre performer with possibly the best part of the book, Sarah Jane Moore. She wonderfully brought to life a sad and forgotten housewife whom it was impossible for the audience not to love.  Her comic timing was impeccable. And while we’re on the topic of impeccable comic timing, Shane Nagle rates a special mention.  As a struggling Santa Claus and would be Nixon assassin, Nagle delivered his monologues with such pathos that you almost found yourself rooting for him to succeed in his plot.

Fortyfivedownstairs is an interesting venue. It’s a large warehouse space down several flights of stairs. Really quite lovely to look at. It does, however, have some problems as a performance area. There are restricted sightlines due to four large load-bearing poles, which create a box in the centre. This wouldn’t be a problem if the Director had set the action within this space. However, Parke has chosen to use the entire area which meant that many times an important character or piece of action was restricted from the view of the entire audience. My understanding is that this company had very limited time in the theatre so some of these hiccoughs may be understandable due to lighting plot difficulties but at the end of the day (or night) the audience doesn’t care about these things and would prefer to be able to see the action on stage in its entirety. Similarly, because the audience is on bleacher seating and the stage is on the floor, there were some problems with the blocking, with John Wilkes Booth playing out his demise far downstage, where the audience had to lean forward out of their seats to see what was happening.

The set design was interesting- a carnival like environment  artfully created with a shooting gallery of men in suits with targets for head, representing each president. One has to wonder though, why with such attention to the set, a tarpaulin was used to hide a set piece upstage and dead centre for almost the entire production. This piece pulled focus away from some wonderful performances taking place just in front.

Even with these issues Assassins is well worth the cost of admission to see the performances from the entire ensemble (particularly Dickinson, Tsindos, Garner and Simpson-Deeks) who in spite of some sight line issues, managed to fully entertain for the duration.

L.B. Bermingham

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