Over twenty years ago, when Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins originally opened Off-Broadway, the composer expected disapproval of its ‘volatile’ subject matter. The musical tells the stories of nine people who attempted – some successfully – to murder Presidents of the United States, and explores what motivated the assassins, using the conceit of a carnival shooting game. Today, it seems people are transfixed more than ever by American politics: one needs only think of the recent Broadway smash hit Hamilton, or the ongoing concern surrounding the US election. With all this in mind, producer Laura Collins chose a very fitting musical for Ormond College Drama Club to stage in 2016.
Audiences were greeted by America’s iconic star-spangled banner above the stage, fitted with shining lights as stars, which remained throughout the show. Anna Ritchie’s set was made up of piled objects from the past, with a gallows tucked away in the corner. Although impressive in its design, the set seemed to overcrowd the stage and drew emphasis from the characters at the heart of the show. Additionally, during the opening number some singers’ notes failed to completely hit the mark. Nevertheless, these small criticisms were easily forgiven as the cast’s talents and comic timing became more palpable as time passed. One felt in good hands with the sweet singing voices of Georgie Pender and Emma Hill, who played John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau respectively, while Georgie Winchester, Tabitha Lee, and Lauren Bennett encouraged most laughter. Winchester played Sara Jane Moore with an air of comic nonchalance, which became all the more hilarious beside Lee’s earnest and resolute Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Bennett as Sam Byck mastered both a wonderful accent and complex monologues with excellent emotion and delivery. Though these are noteworthy performances, the show truly shone during chorus numbers, when the cast sang and danced together in unison. Special praise must be given to the ensemble actors for their enthusiasm and versatility. I doubt anyone in the audience could forget Keir Hamilton’s hysterical performance as a little boy having a tantrum over a Bubble O’ Bill ice-cream, and his smooth depiction of slain President William McKinley.
In returning to Sondheim’s original concerns: does one feel as if the composer is responsible for turning violence into humour onstage? In a sense, Ormond College’s production made the assassins cool anti-heroes, slightly endearing people who the audience loved to hate. However, the simple and vivacious choreography by director Dylan Harris amplified the absurdity of the show, making it almost caricature, while the clever inclusion of televisions projecting real clips of the events was a solemn reminder of what actually took place. If this wasn’t enough, the final song’s announcement ‘Everybody’s got the right to dream’ became a threatening declaration when the assassin’s guns were each pointed directly at an audience member’s face.
Ormond College Drama Club’s production of Assassins ran from 3rd-6th August in the Guild Theatre.