Thursday, December 12, 2013

Rough Magic, 'Assassins': Sing to Kill

How does Stephen Sondheim's musical make sense of the US Presidential assassination attempts, successful or otherwise, throughout the years?  

Project Arts Centre
Dec 9-14

My review of Assassins, as part of Rough Magic's SEEDS showcase, coming up just as soon as I consider killing Franklin Roosevelt ...

Have you ever imagined your problems being solved by killing a US President? Macabre musical Assassins depicts how men and women arrived at such bloody resolve. 

Tunefully spun from a chirping songbook by Stephen Sondheim, and a dark-humoured script by John Weidman, this musical brings us the individuals who raised guns and fired against the commander-in-chief over the years. "All you have to do is squeeze your little finger back and you can change the world", rings one homicidal hymn, before a balladeer leads us into a catchy number where the public paw over president William McKinley ("Do you know what his favourite dish is? It was in the paper. Beef!") before he's shot dead by Leon Czolgosz. 

Not all assassinations go according to plan. The foiled attempt by Guiseppe Zangara, in a deft turn by Anthony Kinahan, results in the more than earnest 'How I Saved Roosevelt', with several citizens singing to take credit. The only female would-be-assassins, a Charles Manson cultist and a FBI informant, portrayed by the comic duo of Erica Murray and Clare Barrett, find an alliance here where they didn't in real life, with Gerald Ford in both of their unsteady crosshairs.    

Director Ronan Phelan's choice for Rough Magic's SEEDS showcase, marking the end of his participation in their artist development initiative, is ambitious. He and musical director Danny Forde manage the madcap musical while finding its sombre notes, particularly in a song about "another National Anthem". "I did it to bring down the government of Abraham Lincoln and avenge the ravaged South", declares a composed Shane O'Reilly, while Paul Curley's comic turn as struggling writer Guiteau announces he killed James Garfield to promote his book. "I did it to prove to her my everlasting love" (a morose Moe Dunford), "I did it so I'd know where I was coming from" (Barrett's heroine), on and on until Raymond Scannell's spry Balladeer sweeps the song up into a crescendo of inconsequence, of failed attempts to heal a nation. 

It's murderously mad, and as we watch the action play out on Zia Holly's slick star-spangled set, between laughs elicited by an excellent cast - particularly Barrett's trigger-happy heroine - we consider just what an extraordinary decision it is: to kill the man perceived to be the most powerful in the world. Sondheim takes the individuals who violently shook the world and delivers them back to America, not as un-relatable criminals released from a psychotic carnival but as individuals suffering from a society of inequality. It's bigger than the confectionary musical; it raises a gun to the temple of American opportunism, and that makes Assassins brilliant. 

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