This fun musical about presidential shootings is on stage at the George Ignatieff Theatre in Toronto
In simple terms, Assassins (playing the George Ignatieff Theatre) is a musical about shooting the president. Each of the nine men and women featured is based on a real historical figure, and through Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and music (built around John Weidman’s story), we get a unique perspective on the American dream. How much do these people — the insane, the desperate, the thwarted and the under-appreciated — have in common? How well do we really understand their motives? And what does this uniquely American habit of killing their leaders say about the conscience and nature of that nation?
Heavy stuff for a musical, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s StageWorks. Here, supported by some outstanding character work and several bold staging decisions, they make delightful stuff out of one of Sondheim’s darkest, most difficult, and most rewarding pieces.
But first, the preliminaries. Set designer Michelle Tracey’s funfair is a gift to the production, providing both a startling motif and a timeless setting: the program calls it Limbo, but it could very well be anywhere in America, any time between 1860 and 1980 — which is the point. Her set also gives The Proprietor, Luke Witt, something to climb, crawl and slither over.
Co-directors Lorraine Kimsa and Michael Yaneff (Kimsa scores a choreography credit, too) have laced this piece with evocative and interesting movement, and nowhere is this more visible than in Witt’s background business. This emphasis on physicality contrasts him with Hugh Ritchie’s Balladeer, paragon of virtue and the American way.
More importantly, this solid foundation of movement paves the way for the acting company’s outstanding character work: this piece has 11 major characters, and each feels fresh and distinctive throughout: Will van der Zyl’s sad-clown Samuel Byck; the thwarted idealism of Dylan Brenton’s Czolgosz; the twitchy mania of Michael Buchanan’s John Hinckley Jr.
Laurie Hurst as Sarah Jane Moore and Christie Stewart as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the only two women in the principal cast, have chemistry as a double act, out-sing the men — and get the most laughs of the night; Rich Burdett channels Frank Underwood into his John Wilkes Booth, as charming as he is dangerous; and Witt’s Proprietor is a character who’ll follow you all the way home, smelling faintly of sulfur.
But while I’m reluctant to pick favourites, I was especially drawn to Russ Underdown’s Charles Guiteau, a megalomaniac buffoon who remains charming and engaging throughout, especially as he cakewalks his way to the gallows.
Musical director Tom Kerr has a great band supporting the piece, and all of the actors sing impressively, but this — unfortunately — is the only real wrinkle of the night: because of the live in-house orchestra, the singers are all amplified, and the system isn’t always sensitive enough to pick up dialogue. Hopefully this is a problem which will be mashed out during the course of the run; for now, sit down in front and read their lips through the noisy bits.
What surprised me most about this production is how much fun it was. The fun sort of creeps up from behind: there are moments of levity (“How I Saved Roosevelt” is a standout), but even during the drier, darker and more twisted moments, there are enough intellectual goodies socked away in this behemoth of a script to keep a curious mind merrily humming away.
And provided you can come to this piece with precisely that — an open, curious mind — there’s no reason why you wouldn’t have a whale of a time, too.
- Assassins plays through July 27th at the George Ignatieff Theatre. (15 Devonshire Place, near Bloor & St. George.)
- Performances run Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM, with 2:00 matinees on Sundays. See website for full schedule.
- All tickets cost $25, and may be purchased online or in-person from the venue beginning one hour before the performance. In-person sales are cash only.
- Be advised that, due to construction, Devonshire is currently blocked both ways from Bloor to Hoskins, and the venue must be approached on foot.
- Be advised that this show includes frequent gunshots and occasional use of strobe lights.
Photograph of the cast of Assassins provided by the company. Some costume designs have been altered since this photograph was taken.