In one of the most chilling and riveting opening numbers in musical theatre, a fairground carny cajoles passersby to step up to the shooting gallery and play the kill-a-president game.
"Hey kid, failed your test? Dream girl unimpressed? Show her you’re the best," sings the pitchman in Everybody’s Got the Right as he presses a gun into the hands of not just anybody but John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Giuseppe Zangara, Leon Czolgosz, Samuel Byck, Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, Sara Jane Moore and John Hinckley, all people who tried or succeeded in assassinating United States presidents from Lincoln to Reagan.
They become the gun-toting chorus of the horrifying and hilarious Assassins, the opening production of the 2013 Master Playwright Festival dedicated to Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics to a provocative script by John Weidman. The pair guide a journey into the dark heart of the American dream that is unlike any other theatre experience.
Guns play a leading role in this Toronto touring production that began its run at the RMTC Warehouse Thursday. They get pointed and fired often, surely an off-putting prospect for Sondheim fans still dealing with the senselessness of another mass shooting south of the border. Director Adam Brazier wisely lessens their impact by the use of faux pistols — they look like bent pipe guns — that don’t get directed at the audience during the rousing 110 minute show (no intermission).
But spectators are not saved from being in the crosshairs of Sondheim’s pointed tune, Gun Song, in which Booth declares, "And all you have to do, Is move your little finger, Move your little finger and — You can change the world." That’s all anyone has to do to punch their ticket to immortality.
There is something dreadfully wrong with a country that has such a long and bloody history of assassins. Sondheim and Weidman hold up a funhouse mirror to American society that reflects the notion that these deranged killers feed on the same you-can-do-anything societal sales pitch as everyone else. What’s worse is that the pair attempt to wring some sympathy for these devils.
This loosely structured musical features a series of vignettes between the assassins who convene like they are some all-ages club. They are joined by a Balladeer who offers the voice of popular opinion about the killers. Booth, who is accorded the most dignity in Assassins, claims he shot Lincoln, "the man who killed my country" while the Balladeer suggests that the stage actor fired his gun at the president because of bad reviews. Shane Carty is very effective as the club’s elder statesman, offering encouragement as he insinuates himself into the minds of the other crackpots.
All the assassins are well portrayed with standouts including Steve Ross who brings an unhinged, impish appeal to Guiteau, who shot James Garfield in 1881. Graham Abbey makes the most of a pair of great scenes in which the Nixon wannabe killer Sam Byck wears a dishevelled Santa Claus costume while taping a rambling message about the dysfunctional U.S. government to his hero Leonard Bernstein. Melody A. Johnson and Janet Porter provide some hilarious comic relief as frumpy housewife Moore and Fromme, the deluded hippie girlfriend of Charles Manson, who both made an attempt on Gerald Ford’s life.
While his lyrics are lethal, Sondheim’s music is all over the place, hitting just about every American form. He seems to even tip his hat to the saccharine sentiments of ’70s-style pop balladry with Unworthy of Your Love, performed as a dismaying duet by the guitar-toting Hinckley, hot for Jodie Foster, and Fromme, who is devoted to Manson.
The loose plot comes together in a creepy 11th-hour scene in which the assassins meet up at the book depository in Dallas with Lee Harvey Oswald and all pressure him to fire on President John F. Kennedy and join them in everlasting infamy. The impact of that act is brought home in Something Just Broke in which common folk remember where they were when Kennedy was shot and how they felt.
The Birdland Theatre/Talk is Free Theatre co-production exudes a polished confidence and executes a killer Assassins.