WAAPA 3rd year music theatre students took a shot at Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, under the direction of WAAPA alumnus James Millar and the musical direction of David King. It was a slick and sparkly take on the star-spangled musical and this team of professionals and soon-to-be-professionals handled the darkly humorous material and challenging music with confidence.
The pre-show began with the Balladeer (Sean Miley Moore) sitting alone on stage, which was bedecked in faded, dirty stars on the floor and stripes on flats at the rear (designed by Melanie Shipley) and washed in red and blue lights (designed by Jack Edmunds). Soon he’s joined by the Proprietor (Emily Heart) who seems a devil in disguise with her red stilettos, knowing looks and sultry prowl. Then the assassins filter in, and we are introduced to the show’s ensemble of characters, made up of strong, unique performers. There’s a great deal of variety for us to watch in this rogues gallery and Millar rightly lets us take in all the different characters by not giving them too much busy choreography or blocking in the opening number.
As Sondheim and Weidman take us back and forth through America’s history, via the prism of its various assassinations and assassination attempts, we get to know the deluded, deranged and desperate individuals behind these violent acts. Millar and his cast wring all the comedy they can out of the comical numbers and scenes: Ross Chisari is a manic, unstoppable force as Zangara; Bobbie-Jean Henning and Julia Dray as “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore are a zany, Odd Couple-esque pair; and Henry Moss as Charles Guiteau is a supreme showman and scene stealer. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest scene stealer of all: Charles Manson. His gigantic head and crazy eyes projected onto a drop during “Unworthy of Your Love” added an unexpectedly oversized level of irony to the number.
The more serious, dramatic scenes and numbers tended to suffer in pace, but this is often difficult to mitigate when so much of the show’s drive comes from its humour and big ensemble pieces. Riley Sutton is a dashing sort of John Wilkes Booth and comes across as one of the more persuasive and logically compelling assassins. Through him and Joel Paszkowski as Leon Czolgosz, we can almost empathise with their motivations and find reason in their actions. Ben Nicholson is a bewildered, incredulous Lee Harvey Oswald, which not only stands in contrast to his fellow assassins, but also in contrast to Oswald’s historically accepted backstory. Sean Miley Moore as the Balladeer is a fine narrator with impeccable diction and good neutrality; he walks us through this dangerous territory without telling us how we should think or feel.
The cast is rounded out by several non-assassins who help fill in the details, flesh out the stories and add depth to the ensemble. “Something Just Broke” is an especially strong number, with the whole cast letting the challenging music and solemn emotion do their job. “November 22, 1963” is also a fine example of fantastic ensemble work; the team of assassins make a compelling case to Oswald and they are fully committed to getting him to join their ranks.
Some of the accents were a bit rocky to my American ear and I would encourage every Australian performer who reads this and attempts an American accent to remember that the word “been” is normally pronounced like “Ben” and not “bean.”
Overall, this complicated American history lesson is delivered well by this young Australian bunch and they have handled Sondheim’s obstacle course of tongue-twisters and ear-bending intervals like champions.