Lane Cove Theatre Company: Assassins - Review by Daniel Conway
A common complaint I have heard about theatre in Australia is that too often it is the same shows trotted out over and over again, with very occasionally something new added to the rotation. This is hard to argue with Wicked and Mamma Mia having professional productions this year for the 10,000th time. But I always have the same reaction to those who feel let down by the professional scene here in Australia: "Have you seen what amateur companies are doing? Most amateur companies I know operate on an acceptable loss model, and given enough time to rehearse, talented people on stage, and a can-do attitude, they will bring you shows that you have never heard of and fill a void in the creative space that is needed. This is what struck me about Assassins, presented by Lane Cove Theatre Company. While being penned by the late great Stephen Sondheim, this lesser-known gem is fun, artsy, and cool.
Director Miriam Rihani is right when she says in her director's note that this show does not require elaborate sets. She was then equally right to instead focus on drawing out amazing performances from her cast as they perform a wonderful character study in these vignettes connected by space, time, and conceptual links. The intimate nature of the performance space and the choice of staging really allow the actors to shine. The same note of simplicity to showcase the performer is clear in the work of musical directors Gianna Cheung and Jeremy Kindl. Choosing to perform with two keys (one of which Gianna Cheung was the player conductor) and drums really added to the intimacy of the evening and stripped it back, so the performers had the freedom to inject character without having to compete with a full band. This tactic is risky as it can expose some singers, but in this instance, I feel it was very successful. This is a shockingly large cast. Portraying the inner lives of nine historical assassins, plus the ensemble adding depth and colour to the production. I did not expect to see this many hands on deck. The assassins in question do an amazing job of each holding their own space while creating a wonderful tableau as an ensemble. Everything from how they held their gun to their posture was considered. The costumes do a wonderful job of acquainting the audience with who each assassin is, or rather, when the assassin is, because this is a tale that spans most of US history.
James Burchett, who plays The Balladeer and then the final assassin of the evening, has a wonderful, bright tone when he sings that is built for Sondheim. Being a point of reflection and often the voice of history and perspective, he connects with the audience wonderfully. Jay Cullen is impressive as John Wilkes Booth. With impressive and full low notes and a wonderful energy that radiates confidence, he really stands out as the spiritual leader of this band of merry murders. Blake O'Brien as Charles Guitau is so infectious on stage. I have never enjoyed seeing an execution on stage more. O'Brien has total control over his characterisations; he is camp without ever being ridiculous, and he is unhinged without ever being too manic.
One of my personal favourites of the evening was Tommy James Green as Samuel Byck. His facial expressions are amazing, and he is so captivating when he gets the chance to monologue. It is not easy to fill a room while sitting down and eating, but he manages to do just that. Max Waterson is so expressive as Leon Czolgosz, I found myself drawn into his eyes when he held the stage in his solo numbers, and his scene work additionally had me captivated and feeling for this man who, by virtue of being a subject in this show, did something terrible. Actually, this idea of feeling sympathy for an assassin is doubly true of Heath Anderson as John Hinckley. Anderson plays the role almost like a wounded puppy, and it is really effective. I found myself feeling sorry for him until I remembered the obsession with Jodi Foster. I thoroughly enjoyed his duet with Emma Flynn, who plays Lynette Fromme. Both singers sounded wonderful and made these characters so fully developed and engaging that, again, you almost forgot that one half of them was singing about Charles Mason. Flynn also has wonderful chemistry with the other would-be murderess, Sarah Jane Moore, played by Melissa Glinn. Glinn and Flynn make an awesome double act that had some of my favourite moments in the show. Between Flynn's earnest line reading of the hippie talking points and Glinn being just so good at physical comedy, both ladies absolutely killed it, even if their historical counterparts didn't.
Konrad Ryzak rounds out the titular assassins, playing Giuseppe Zangara. Always committed in his physicality and accent (which I am assuming was put on), Ryzak did a great job of bringing this character to life, who was one of the figures I did not know. The last of the larger roles is that of the proprietor, played by Austin Burrows. Playing this Faustian figure that connects the themes of the show together in the opening number, Burrows does a wonderful job of channelling an old-timey carnival grifter and really setting the tone for this dark comedy.
What I liked about this show is that it gives the performers room to breathe and live in the roles, and it is a really smart choice for Lane Cove Theatre Company so they can keep producing theatre that serves our need to see shows like this and celebrate performers and creatives who can turn a small performance space into an exploration of history, memory, and legacy. All you need is a piano or two, a stage, and an audience. I give this production 4 rounds of ammunition to kill a president out of 5.
Photos courtesy of Jim Crew and Robert Schaverien