Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hitting It Right On The Spot - Assassins - Musical Review

Assassins - Birdland Theatre & Talk is Free Theatre at The Theatre Centre - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Libretto by John Weidman, Directed by Adam Brazier
Runs until Jan. 23rd 2011

Sometimes, the problem with theatre in Toronto, is that when the local community comes together with a show, it tends to get overpraised with self-congratulatory efforts. And then it runs for only a short run so that no one outside the community can actually see it. (I'm particularly thinking of another current musical production that I just reviewed, though that one was actually mostly poorly reviewed)

Well, Birdland Theatre and Talk Is Free Theatre have remounted their hit revival of Sondheim's darkly brilliant musical Assassins (which I completely missed the first time around being out of the country during its run) with a slightly rejigged cast and apparently some minor directorial changes and it's nice proof that a show can TOTALLY DEFY the usual problems that plague some small independent theatre projects in Toronto, and instead, produce a truly outstanding, slick, professional, and totally mesmerizing piece of theatre, AND run it again so that MORE people can actually see it (what's with that!?!)! So people of Toronto, GO OUT and actually GO SEE IT! This is for your own good. A stunning production of a rich Sondheim musical with one of the best collection of performances I've seen, from the local cast that would match the best of the world (or at least Broadway).

Assassins is superbly and slickly directed here by Adam Brazier (usually on stage himself) and with his design team of Beth Kates (Set and Props), Erika Connor (Costimes) and Gareth Crew (Lighting), they've brought us into the midst of a carnival atmosphere where the major US Assassins have come together to present their vignettes of why they did it. There's a beautifully smoky mood set out right from the entrance of The Theatre Centre's dark converted space and the line is clearly drawn as soon as the cast steps out and a boy (Ezra Tennen) literally draws a line between them and us audience.

Having opened on the same weekend as the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona and the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords, it seemed like it might be a little awkward, if even exploitative, to take in a show called Assassins. But Weidman and Sondheim's show is such a rich and deeply textured look at the Assassins psyche, no matter how crazy or strangely reasoned, that watching the show during the weekend was actually strangely helpful in understanding everything that was happening in America.

Of course, it helps that this production sizzles and hits the right balance between its often satyrical humour and the grave subject matter. Brazier and the incredible cast, who at moments double as the Orchestra (John Doyle-style) to further pump up the smaller dedicated Orchestra in the back, makes Assassins sounds glorious, and almost unfair to be kept in such a small performance space.

The entire cast is simply killer, with each member able to "steal the show". Even the two ensemble member Jonathan Tan and Alicia Toner are solid. Martin Julien is wonderfully creepy as the Proprietor.

Graham Abbey (CBC's The Border) is a sweaty mess in his Santa costume as Samuel Byck, who ranted and raved into a tape sent to Leonard Bernstein before trying to assassinate Nixon. Abbey's performance is shattering and sickly hysterical and winning. I'm amazed with his true American-boy-next-door looks and his powerful singing voice, that he isn't a bigger musical star (or star for that matter)? If Abbey were on Broadway, he'd be getting all the leading roles.

Alex Fiddes is haunting as Leon Czolgosz, and does a wonderfully muted but emotionally deep portrayal of a man abused by the working system who finds solace in Emma Goldman (an equally startling turn by the beautifully voiced Whitney Ross-Barris). Fiddes is thoughtful while brooding without feeling one note, all while his singing is beautifully sweet sounding in its clarity.

Steve Ross (centre) is hilariously sneaky, creepy, and weasely as Charles Guiteau, who so desperately attempts to assert his coolness and power on the others.

Paul McQuillan initially leads the way as the father of American assassinators John Wilkes Booth, and manages to hold a strange leading power over the group even after his time.

A shy and sulky Christopher Stanton as John Hinckley devotes his love to movie star Jody (Foster) and sings a beautiful ode to his delusions before attempting to kill Ronald Reagan.

Janet Porter is fantastically deranged as Lynette "Squaky" Fromme, Charles Manson's girlfriend, who joins forces with a sputtering Sara Jane Moore, deliciously played by Lisa Horner (Love, Loss, and What I Wore, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish-Wiccan Wedding). Horner, who was so winning in Wonderful Town and MMLJWW, uses her likability but suburban mom franticness and squeezes them until her Moore starts looking saner than Manson's girlfriend.

Kevin Dennis (A Year With Frog and Toad) looks almost gangly with his googly eyes and shaved head here as Giuseppe Zangara, a disillusioned immigrant who tries to murder FDR.

Finally, there's Geoffrey Tyler as the Balladeer. Tyler has a beautifully soft and innocent sounding voice, and while it is a bit quieter than his fellow belters (and there were a few missed lines due to Tyler's beautiful low but non reverberating voice), Brazier nicely enhances it with a microphone most of the time. The softer voice goes nicely with Tyler's aw-shucks innocence of his balladeer, which also gives the powerful ending all the more reverberation.

There's also a nice touch in using pieces of metal hardware and pipes constructed to look like guns. Which again, thematically, only enhances the final sequence of Brazier's Assassins. This remount is such the collective of great casting, tremendous performances, in a tightly directly, intelligent and slick vision of a modern musical classic.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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