Assassins is performed by the London College of Music, Ealing until 30 April.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
London College of Music, the musical theatre arm of the University of West London, has always had a soft spot for the rich catalogue of the genius that is Stephen Sondheim and this year’s effort with the highly complicated Assassins has to go down as their best effort yet.
Nothing in Sondheim is straightforward but Assassins, from John Weidman’s boundary-stretching book, must seem a total head-scratcher to anyone seeing it for the first time and not having done their homework on the many assassination attempts on US Presidents.
America’s gun-happy society where any politically-motivated killer or the just plain mentally unstable can acquire a firearm is the theme of this disturbing piece, so little wonder that Assassins did not please everyone when it arrived on Broadway in 1990.
It does not show the USA in the best of lights: there have been assassination attempts on every US President bar Lyndon Johnson. Assassins focuses on eight of them, four of which – on Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F Kennedy – worked and brought the nation to its knees. As the song says: ‘Something Just Broke’.
The story uses the premise of a murderous carnival game to produce a revue-style portrayal of the nine would-be assassins, doubling up the laughably inept attempts by Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore on the life of Gerald Ford, and bringing them into the same time frame.
So we have John Wilkes Booth, who shot Lincoln in 1865, exhorting the depressed Lee Harvey Oswald not to kill himself and be forgotten, but instead to bump off Kennedy on that fateful Dallas day in 1963 and leave his indelible mark on American history.
It takes time grasping what’s going on and who all the characters are, and an even stronger programme note would have helped first-timers. When I first saw Assassins I was totally baffled but here, on fifth viewing, it comes over as one of Sondheim’s most thrilling and audacious creations.
Admittedly, it’s not one with a high quota of great songs like Follies, but the wry ‘Everybody’s Got the Right (to be happy)’ makes its insistent presence felt while the Carpenters-style ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, composed by the obsessed Hinckley for his film-star dream girl Jodie Foster –- he tried to kill Reagan to impress her – is Sondheim’s pretty pop song of the period.
The LCM cast is strong from top to bottom with the Fromme-Moore team of Alexandra Brailsford and Amy Lovatt deservedly getting plenty of laughs for some hilarious team work and Viktoría Sigurðardóttir’s cameo as political activist Emma Goldman being stalked by McKinley’s crazy killer Leon Czolgosz (Matt Szadura, excellent) is a delight.
Kian Zomorodian makes the most of the prancingly deluded writer Charles Guiteau who shot Garfield in 1881 because the president wouldn’t make him Ambassador to France.
Danny Merrill is a frighteningly amusing Sam Byck, the nutter who wrote to composer Leonard Bernstein telling him to write more love songs like ‘Tonight’ to make the world a better place, then tried to hijack a plane, crash it into the White House and exterminate President Nixon.
But this is an all-round success, with Will Jarman (Zangara), Jack Griffin (Booth), Andrew Sowrey (The Proprietor), Peter Macfarlane (Hinckley), Cameron Reid (The Balladeer) and Alex McAteer (Oswald), Matthew Traher and Alice Stubbs all playing their part.
Congratulations to director Robert Shaw Cameron in making it all come together as a comprehensible whole and whizzing along at lickety-spit pace, much helped by Rob Myles’ imaginative fairground set.
Musical director Dan Smith’s eight-strong band does Sondheim proud and there is a superbly topical touch at the end when the cast, after turning their weapons on the audience, wheel round and there is a mask of Donald Trump to take their next pop at! Great stuff.