By Crystal Wood
Assassins is the kind of musical that attracts people that aren’t generally fans of musicals. There are guns! There are killers! There are pop-culture references! And it doesn’t hurt that in Birdland Theatre’s production at the Theatre Centre, the music is tight and the performances are strong.
The show gives a behind-the-scenes look at the people who assassinated (or attempted to assassinate) various presidents of the United States. They’re all here. From the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy to the lesser known attempts on FDR and Gerald Ford. Did you know that there’s a connection between Charles Manson and the assassination of Gerald Ford? I didn’t.
Like other Stephen Sondheim musicals (Sweeney Todd, I’m looking at you), the play doesn’t shy away from its dark subject material. It gives us some insight into the mind of a killer, without making us either like r hate them. As one song says, “Everyone has a right to their dream,” even if that dream is shooting a president. Each assassin is given their moment in the spotlight, to explain whether their motives come from a desire for social change or from a blind celebrity obsession. For the lesser known figures, there’s something kind of stirring about the fact that this musical is their best chance to be remembered for the crime that they thought would bring them immortality.
I thought the musical numbers were carried off well. Though there is a live band in the shadows, many of the characters pick up instruments themselves. Chris Stanton and Trish Lindstrom sing an ode to celebrity obsession that I think is one of the show’s best moments. And while I’m on the subject of strong performances, Paul McQuillan delivers an amazing representation of John Wilkes Booth (err… so I imagine?) and Geoffrey Tyler draws a lot of sympathy as an unhappy Lee Harvey Oswald. In fact, the only casting choice that made me unhappy was that Kate Hewlett was so under-used.
I found that I had a few problems with the book (aka the lyrics) of the musical written by John Weidman. The script made some choices that I thought didn’t serve the stories as well as it could. For example, was the Proprietor character (played by Martin Julien) really necessary? Why does the story jump across periods of time, rather than just telling the events chronologically? Why would they have us believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy because of a vision where John Wilkes Booth appears to him quoting Arthur Miller? (Sounds confusing, doesn’t it?)
The venue also created a few challenges. I love the Theatre Centre, but the acoustics aren’t great and the actors aren’t miked, so some voices don’t carry as well as others. But I do have to give credit to Birdland Theatre (who did an amazing re-mount of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in an empty Distillery District gallery last year). They know how to use a space to their advantage, pulling off a large-scale show in a small-scale space.
If an American history murder musical performed by a talented cast sounds like your kind of thing, Mooney on Theatre is giving away a pair of tickets for this Thursday evening to a lucky winner!
– Assassins is running February 4 – February 20, 2010 at the Theatre Centre, (100-1087 Queen Street W)
– Performances are Monday to Saturday at 8pm, and Saturdays at 2pm.
– All tickets are $33, available online at www.totix.ca, or at the door.
Photo of Assassins cast by Guntar Kravis