Along the way, Assassins probes deeply into the nature of the American dream - this is, we're reminded, a country where some have much and many have little, but also one where the mailman can win the lottery.
—Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer
"Angry men don't write the rules/And guns don't right the wrongs./Hurts a while but soon the country's/Back where it belongs."
Those are lyrics that could've been written yesterday, or the day after the Newtown shootings. They were written more than 20 years ago by Stephen Sondheim, as part of his 1990 musical Assassins - a fresh, feisty piece of musical theatre given a pristine production by Toronto's Birdland Theatre and Talk Is Free Theatre.
The two companies bring their award-winning co-production (twice mounted in their hometown) to the MTC Warehouse as part of SondheimFest, and the festival is richer for the inclusion of it.
Assassins is a curious musical indeed. Blending a range of American musical styles, from Dixieland to bluegrass to Sousa marches, it focuses on nine men and women who tried to kill (or succeeded in killing) an American president, from John Wilkes Booth, who killed Lincoln, to would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley.
Along the way, Assassins probes deeply into the nature of the American dream - this is, we're reminded, a country where some have much and many have little, but also one where the mailman can win the lottery. And it's a country which relatively frequently tries to kill its leader.
Joe Matheson steps up to the mic in "Assassins" (Bruce Monk)
Only a lyricist with Sondheim's wit (he's responsible for music and lyrics, with a very clever book by John Weidman) could make this funny. But it is - uproariously, absurdly, and bleakly comically so. Take, for example, these lyrics from the show opener, "Everybody's Got the Right": "Hey pal, feeling blue?/Don't know, what to do?/Hey pal, I mean you/Come here and kill a president."
Of course, it takes talented performers to unlock the comedy in material this dark, and director Adam Brazier's 13-member cast rises admirably to the challenge. With their four-member backing band (under music director Reza Jacobs), they form a note-perfect ensemble, impressively mining the opportunities Sondheim and Weidman give to make surprisingly sympathetic characters out of these killers.
Steve Ross' Garfield assassin, Charles Guiteau, is hilariously self-aggrandizing; Melody A. Johnson gives Sara Jane Moore, one of the two women who attempted to kill Ford, an endearingly quirky quality with spot-on comic touches; and Graham Abbey earned a spontaneous round of applause on opening night for a devastatingly dark and funny monologue as Sam Byck, who planned to kill Nixon by flying a plane into the White House.
The entire cast, though, turns in fabulous performances. And even in its spoken dialogue, Brazier's production has a perfectly-paced, musical rhythm.
By the time it reaches its touching conclusion (after a snappy, intermissionless 110 minutes), Assassins
has made us laugh, moved us, and provoked us with questions about our society and who we truly want to be. It's hard to ask more from an evening of theatre.
hits the mark. Make sure you don't miss it.Assassins runs at the MTC Warehouse until February 2.