“The country isn’t what it used to be,” sings John Wilkes Booth in Stephen Sondheim’s off-kilter Assassins, a sentiment as true now as it was in Booth’s day – or in 1990 when the musical, which tells the story of nine presidential assassins (not all successful), premiered Off-Broadway. Dean Bryant’s wonderful production of Assassins – which has music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by John Weidman – opened at the Hayes Theatre last September and has now moved to the Sydney Opera House where it is thriving on the extra breathing room afforded by the Playhouse.

AssassinsThe cast of Assassins at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Prudence Upton

In her review of the Hayes’ production, Limelight’s Editor Jo Litson described Bryant’s Assassins as “a stunningly inventive production in which every single element comes together brilliantly” and it’s even slicker at its new venue, while still retaining the gritty edge that made it work at the Hayes. Alicia Clements’ colourfully soiled set and costumes – Bryant has all the action take place at the run-down fun park that frames the musical – works beautifully in this space, with fairy lights hanging from the lighting rig, rotting fairground paraphernalia (an ancient bumper car, pinball machine, jukebox) giving the purgatorial space an eerie ghost-town feel.

Assassins, Sydney Opera HouseThe cast of Assassins at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Prudence Upton

The cast is largely the same, with the returning actors all giving performances that have matured and sharpened since last year. David Campbell drips dignified menace and authority as John Wilkes Booth, Maxwell Simon – who made his professional debut in the production – shines as The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, while Connor Crawford makes for a troubled John Hinckley, Jr, whose violent admiration for Jodie Foster is creepily endearing. Hannah Fredericksen and Kate Cole return as duo flower child ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and accident-prone Sarah Jane Moore (would-be Ford assassins), their comic repartee finely honed. Fredericksen’s love duet with Crawford Unworthy of Your Love (she sings to Charles Manson, he to Jodie Foster) is also a beautiful moment. Bobby Fox is charming and animated as the optimistic Charles Guiteau (James Garfield’s assassin), his athletic scaffold song-and-dance number The Ballad of Guiteau – complete with fairy-light skipping rope sequence (Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography) – sees just the right amount of fraying to his manic positivity. Unfortunately he sustained an injury to his foot at the end of this routine on opening night, so Ryan Gonzalez will be stepping into the role until Fox’s recovery. Rob McDougall returns as the grizzled carnie offering his patrons a chance to shoot a president while Jason Winston is William McKinley’s assassin Leon Czolgosz.

AssassinsHannah Fredericksen and Kate Cole in Assassins at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Prudence Upton

New to the cast are Anthony Gooley as Samuel Byck – his taped monologue to Leonard Bernstein is a highlight – and Luigi Lucente as stomach-troubled Guiseppe Zangarra (who takes a shot at FDR). Madeleine Jones, following her success in Muriel’s Wedding, joins as the radical Emma Goldman, who inspired Czolgosz’s murderous act, and leading Something Just Broke as a mourner for JFK.

Sondheim’s music is great, paying homage to a series of American styles across the historical periods covered, and it’s driven by Musical Director Andrew Worboys and his band, in compact, effective arrangements. Among many fine moments are the male trio in The Gun Song and Simon’s rendition of The Ballad of Booth with Campbell.

AssassinsConnor Crawford in Assassins at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Prudence Upton

In a world of widespread political discontent and clamouring for attention, Assassins feels as timely as ever – but this is particularly aided by a production that sets the action ‘outside’ time. If the tension in Weidman’s book slackens slightly as he binds all of the threads together before the finale, seeking a greater unity of purpose in the events portrayed, a gripping performance by Campbell does much to keep it taut, and overall this is, across the board, a brilliant, tight-as-a-drum production that’s only improved with age. While the larger space offers more freedom, none of the unsettling intimacy or immediacy is lost. A must see.

Assassins is playing at the Sydney Opera House until July 1


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