Assassins is a Stephen Sondheim musical telling the story of nine people who attempted to assassinate, or succeeded in assassinating, an American president. The stage is decked as a carnival shooting gallery; the proprietor of this grotesque attraction is dressed in a highly patriotic stars and stripes outfit, providing one of the few splashes of colour in the production. The tone is set as she sells both guns and dreams to the assassins, in the first musical number 'Everybody's Got the Right'.
There are nine would-be assassins in this musical, but – even with a 90-minute running time, luxurious in Fringe terms – this is too many for all of their characters and motivations to be fully developed. The stories of Samuel Byck and John Wilkes Booth are fleshed out and well presented, but others, such as Leon Czolgosz, are not explored and their motives remain unclear. The two females, Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, are especially ill-treated by the script, with both coming across as little more than caricatures of hippy, dim-witted women.
The stories of these assassins are interwoven with one another, and their interactions are at times interesting – though John Wilkes Booth appears to get a disproportionately large role. The play does not progress in a linear fashion and on occasions it was difficult to follow the various presidents and their assassins, perhaps reflecting the fact that this was originally written for an American audience. These events are not a part of our national consciousness, and the incidents are not as well known as they presumably would be on Broadway.
The cast were, on the whole, very good – especially Ian Stark as Samuel Byck (dressed as Santa Claus) – and the musical numbers were all performed and choreographed well. The set, while limited, provided the desired carnival air: this is a place where you can win big and beat the odds, reflecting the faded American Dream that all of the assassins are trying to attain. The era-appropriate costumes are also a highlight, helping identify the periods each assassin is from; for example the aforementioned Fromme, a Manson Family member, is dressed as a faded hippy, while Moore, a stay-at-home mom, wears slacks and big glasses. Both tried to assassinate Gerald Ford in 1975.
But for a musical of this length there were surprisingly few musical numbers (9 in 90 minutes), and the audience was getting noticeably fidgety by the end. In addition, the cast were not wearing microphones, and it was difficult to hear some of their performances – Charlie Booker seemed particularly quiet. The live band, while excellent, also contributed to the difficulty as at times they drowned out the cast.
Overall, a game cast and interesting visuals are ultimately let down by the fact that this is a weak musical from Sondheim.