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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Union Theatre    Summer 2010

I first saw Assassins about fifteen years ago in a weak student production that made it seem like a really lousy show. Now the admirable Union Theatre offers us a beautifully staged, beautifully acted, beautifully sung production for which I have nothing but praise.

And you know something? It's still a lousy show. But the production is so good that it almost - almost - doesn't matter.

Assassins - book by John Weidman, songs by Stephen Sondheim - is a musical salute to the men and women who have killed (or tried to kill) Presidents of the United States.

John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln, shot) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy, shot) are present, of course, along with such lesser-known heroes as Giuseppe Zangara (Roosevelt, missed) and Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme (Ford, tackled before she could shoot).

Some are treated sympathetically, others presented as inept clowns, and the show builds to a climax in which the others urge a hesitant Oswald to shoot because his triumph will somehow validate and give shape to their stories.

So, there are clearly some taste questions here.

But they're not the show's real problem - the fact that the script is banal, the structure clumsy and the songs almost uniformly poor is a handicap that even the considerable talents of director Michael Strassen and his cast are unable to overcome.

The musical begins promisingly, with a song ironically celebrating every American's right to their dreams, even if they include shooting people.

And near the end, Another National Anthem ('Where's my prize?') has some of the angry energy of the best of Sweeney Todd. But with the list of songs in front of me as I write, I can't remember how any of the others go.

I can see the logic of giving an I-did-it-all-for-you duet to Fromme, obsessed with Charles Manson, and John Hinkley (Reagan, wounded), obsessed with Jodie Foster, but the song itself is nothing.

It may have seemed like a good idea to turn Charles Guiteau (Garfield, shot) into a comic character, but playing his trial and hanging as a mix of gospel and minstrel show is just a mess.

The scenes and songs come in what almost seems like random order, and writer Weidman had to invent an extra character ('The Balladeer') to provide occasional links and exposition, only to forget him for long stretches and have Booth or someone else fill in.

A rather sweet but ultimately irrelevant scene between Leon Czolgosz (McKinley, shot) and anarchist Emma Goldman only reminds us that the musical Ragtime was to do a similar moment much better.

It is followed by an equally pointless sequence that presents Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Ford, missed) as dumb-blonde airheads out of a TV sitcom.

Nothing I've said is in any way a criticism of the cast, who all sing beautifully, even when they have nothing worth singing, and who frequently act strongly enough to almost make what they're saying seem worth listening to.

Glyn Kerslake's smooth-talking Booth carries much of the dramatic and thematic weight with style, while Leigh McDonald's Moore is a delightfully loopy comic creation.

In a couple of solo scenes as Samuel Byck (Nixon, planned to fly a plane into the White House), Nick Holder gives a bravura performance, turning weak material into a nightmare version of the almost-insane ordinary guy you can meet on the streets of any city. And with about five minutes of stage time and a half-dozen lines, Marc Joseph creates a believable and even sympathetic Oswald.

Sondheim fans will definitely want to see this, if only to fill in a gap or to see the show getting as good a production as it is ever likely to have. But what they will find is a talented bunch of people doing their best to spin gold out of dross.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Assassins - Union Theatre 2010