Ah, the American Dream. Where anybody from any background can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and achieve anything they so desire… including becoming the President of the United States. Yes, even you Arnold Schwarze—okay, well, maybe not. But what about those people whose pursuit of happiness and the American way is thwarted by disappointment and heartache; rejection and bitterness? Well, you too can find salvation, my friend… by killing yourself a President of these here United States!
It’s a provocative basis for a musical that squarely takes aim (okay, that’s the sole gun metaphor I promise) at the American Dream and its illusory promise of happiness for all. Instead, it can empower misfits and worse to acts of violence when they feel betrayed by their actual lot in life. Even more subversive is that many of the assassins and would be Presidential killers are presented, if not sympathetically, then certainly in a more even-handed manner than might be expected.
There is no doubt that this is dark terrain indeed but there is a streak of jet-black humour that infuses the proceedings with a vitality that is compelling. That balance between black comedy, social and political satire, and the undercurrent of genuine darkness is a fine line to tread.
What I loved about this production is that all involved attacked it with total commitment and absolute ferocity. There is incredible intensity in the darker hued characters that is matched by some standout comic performances as this rogues’ gallery improbably comes together, ultimately, in a wonderfully written sequence, to convince one of their confreres to commit perhaps the most famous assassination in American history.
Before we come to the many highlights, the intimacy of the studio at the Subiaco Arts Centre really worked well for this. The audience was like a co-conspirator and we were immersed in the immediacy of the performances which were excellent across the board. The set was two movable bleachers that were slickly configured to represent everything from a shooting gallery to famous locations in the dubious history of American political assassinations. There was a smaller rostrum-like component that doubled for everything from a car to the electric chair. Yes, this line of work has a certain finality for more than just the victims. Above it all was a neon lit sign – Lucky Shot – with a bullseye. Subtlety isn’t necessarily a requirement!
Beautifully lit with use of diffused lighting through smoke but also harsher effects to enhance the absurdity or gaudiness of certain moments this was a very handsome production to look at. Costuming and props were very good and I must confess I recognised the thoroughly disgusting bucket of KFC prop from my recent WAAPA tour which drew a chuckle.
The five piece band who handled the typically complicated Sondheim score with aplomb was situated at the back of the space. The music reflected the different time periods as the story cuts from assassins throughout history but in a fractured timeline. The show was a lock out due to the configuration of the stage and the performers weren’t mic’d. The sound balance, however, was very good and there were only a couple of brief moments where the band threatened to overwhelm the vocals. Well played Jackson Griggs (Conductor and keyboards), Joshua James Webb (keyboards), Elliot Frost (guitar), Gwyneth Gardiner (bass) and Rosie Taylor (percussion).
To the performances and each of the featured players have strong moments. The show begins with The Proprietor (Nicholas Miller) enticing our would be assassins to purchase a gun as they sing Everyone’s Got The Right. It sets the tone straight away and Miller, who I’m told is only 17 years old, gets us off to a really strong start. The Balladeer (Brandon Williams-West) then acts as a narrator of sorts as he introduces the diverse collection of misfits starting with the daddy of them all – John Wilkes Booth played by James Cohen.
It’s all barbed satire and commentary delivered in wonderful style… until we come to Booth in the barn after he has shot Abraham Lincoln. Desperate to convince the world of his legitimate reasons in the face of The Balladeer’s protestations that it was more for personal vanity (The Ballad of Booth), this is a powerfully dramatic scene. It was the first sign that this show was going to deliver something more than laughs.
This is shortly followed by Sven Ironside’s immigrant worker Leon Czolgosz’s impassioned description of the horrendous conditions he faces in a factory that makes bottles, the casual breaking of one the catalyst for his rage. He later has a featured scene with Kimberley Harris’ Emma Goldman where he confesses his love to the anarchist leader and is gently rebuffed in perhaps the best acted moment of the show.
Likewise, Thomas Owen as Samuel Byck who planned to kill Richard Nixon by flying a 747 into The White House, gives a frenetic performance with his first monologue in particular a standout. Dressed in a dirty Santa Claus outfit and recording a message for Leonard Bernstein (the West Side Story references are hilarious given Sondheim’s own involvement), this is a profanity laced tirade that is part funny, part disturbing, and delivered with complete conviction.
On the comedic side of the spectrum Cal Silberstein is all smooth charm as Charles Guiteau who wants to be Ambassador to France but is rebuffed by President Garfield. Nothing for it but to shoot him I guess. Arrested and sentenced to hang, the I Am Going To The Lordy/The Ballad of Guiteau is black humour at its most pungent as Silberstein plays the walk to the gallows with increasingly desperate optimism. Peter Martis adds further black humour with the electrocution of his character Guiseppe Zangara gloriously over the top.
Then there’s Olivia Everett’s housewife Sara Jane Moore who appears to be the least competent person to assassinate anyone let alone Gerald Ford. Dogs watch out though! She gives Moore an almost slapstick persona with thick glasses, wig and a lovable klutz-like charm. It’s very funny indeed. She works well with Niamh Nichols' Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme who also wants to kill Ford and proclaims herself Charlie Manson’s lover.
Lynette shares the ballad Unworthy of Your Love with Luke Wilson’s John Hinckley as each serenades their respective catalysts for murder – Charles Manson and Jodie Foster. It’s an affecting song because of the disparity between content and form. Wilson’s plays Hinckley’s obsession with the teen actress with a quieter off-kilter simmer that bubbles over as Fromme mocks him.
Which leads us to the standout sequence as The Balladeer becomes Lee Harvey Oswald and is confronted by Booth one fateful day in Dallas, 23 November, 1963. Williams-West was thoroughly likeable as The Balladeer with a sweet voice and restrained mocking of the others but it’s here he excels with Cohen whose Booth persuades him to assassinate Kennedy. The audacity of that – Oswald and Booth together, with Booth summoning the help of the others so that they can in effect become immortal through one heinous act that reverberated around the world – is stunning.
The ramifications are explored in the highlight for the ensemble in Something Just Broke. Comprised of Erin Craddock, Dash Fewster, Tessa Harris, David Jones, Kieren Lynch, Jessica Reynolds, Tatum Stafford and Alexander Wilkie, they gave excellent support throughout, dressed all in black and adding punch to scenes.
Directed with style and energy by Gregory Jones, I really enjoyed this – the storytelling is exceptional in its audacity; the humour is a rich vein of jet black comedy; the singing is very good indeed; and it’s well played and presented. Above all, you simply can’t be passive with something as intricate as Sondheim so I loved the intensity right from the get go. The run quickly sold out and an extra show was added – a matinee on 23 May (yes, today!). If you can get a ticket then it’s well worth seeing. If you can’t, just don’t shoot a President, okay?