If there’s some revelatory ur-production of Assassins that makes sense of its messiness and its flaws, we’re yet to see it.
It’s a difficult production to get right; despite that, the temptation to put it on stage is always there, whenever politics gets too hot, each time the American dream dies a little death.
We’ve been long due an Assassins for the age of Trump. Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s revue is about all the people who’ve succeeded or failed to assassinate presidents, from Booth to Oswald, and the savagery of its satire has grown only more potent, and maybe even slightly more dangerous.
But while this actor-musician production from Bill Buckhurst – who directed the pie-and-mash shop Sweeney Todd – is a showcase for a superb cast, and has many moments of genius, it still doesn’t quite bring unity to a show of fragments.
There are some fantastic performances; not only do the cast swap instruments, the acting is superb too. Sara Poyzer’s Sara Jane Moore is a frazzled, ditzy delight, as is Jack Quarton’s Jodie Foster-obsessed nerd John Hinckley. The standout is Steve Simmonds’ Samuel Byck, the guy who thought he’d crash a plane into the White House to kill Nixon. His performance is thrillingly unhinged and enraged.
Some choices are inspired, like having a female balladeer in Lillie Flynn. But at times the actor-muso concept works against the show. Sondheim wrote the songs to reflect the era of each assassin. Some of the orchestrations put too many instruments on stage, and drown out the distinctive sounds of those eras.
A big misstep is a red MAGA hat placed on one character. Contemporary parallels don’t need to be made so explicit. Sondheim and Weidman have written more than enough satire into the show without adding something so bald and basic.
When it comes together, though, it’s both glorious and frightening, the small stage absolutely bursting with talent.