Assassins, Hayes Theatre Co

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, September 19.

“I shall be remembered,” cries Charlie Guiteau as he dances his way to the scaffold, singing a plaintive hymn of his own devising. Charlie who? History can be cruel to those who seek to make their mark by whatever means possible. We may remember the effect of their actions but precisely who they were and the reason they did what they did? Not so much.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins (1990) throws together a motley band of successful and would-be killers of US presidents and assesses them against the unforgiving standards of American exceptionalism. “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” the opening number asserts, by which is meant the right to be noticed, be taken seriously, make a mark, be someone, be famous.

Bobby Fox and Jason Kos ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

Bobby Fox and Jason Kos in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

The right to bear arms makes the pursuit of those goals just that bit easier. Some things never grow old. (Guiteau, by the way, was one of the winners, despatching James Garfield in 1881 partly because Garfield ignored his desire to be US ambassador to France.)

Assassins is explicitly set in a fairground shooting gallery, evocatively designed by Alicia Clements (set and costumes) and Ross Graham (lights) as a dark, seedy dump with touches of tawdry glamour. The action sits outside of time and place. Here, in a hallucinatory present, presidential murderers and wannabes from elder statesman John Wilkes Booth (Abraham Lincoln, 1865) to John Hinckley Jr (Ronald Reagan, 1981) get to explain themselves, mix and mingle a little and maybe get a little understanding.

Dean Bryant’s production of this rarely seen Sondheim comes very close to being great. The crack team includes a terrific five-piece band under Andrew Warboys’s direction and Andrew Hallsworth as the very fine choreographer. The cast couldn’t be better and the staging expertly walks the tightrope between black humour and coruscating anger and back again.

The themes have certainly not worn out their welcome. Like the tolling of a muffled bell, certain words repeat throughout Assassins. “Never, never, never.” “Nothing, nothing, nothing no good.” “No one listens.” “I am nothing.” Not. No. For all their delusions and misguided passions, these flawed souls have a powerful point about life’s injustices.

David Campbell in ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

David Campbell in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

It’s just a pity Bryant doesn’t let their carnival masks slip more often. Assassins would be more potent for it. His Little Shop of Horrors, which premiered at the Hayes early last year, was pitch-perfect; Assassins occasionally less than that, including the final image, which offers an easy laugh but not a dramatically satisfying reason for being in a work that gives the deplorables their moment in the sun.

The extraordinary 11-member cast otherwise knocks it out of the park. Each one deserves nothing but superlatives. Kate Cole and Hannah Fredericksen form a wacky double act as Sarah Jane Moore and Charles Manson acolyte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. They each attempted to kill Gerald Ford in 1975 within three weeks of each other, as unsuccessful in handling a gun as Ford was in winning respect. Connor Crawford is the unnervingly self-effacing Hinckley, who shot and injured Ronald Reagan in an effort to win Jodie Foster’s attention.

Martin Crewes as Guiseppe Zangara (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933) and Jason Kos as Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley, 1901) make their anarchist firebrands worthy of our consideration and compassion. Justin Smith’s tremendously good Samuel Byck (Richard Nixon, 1974) is the epitome of madness masquerading as reason. “I’m talking, you’re listening,” he says. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Well, that’s what they all feel.

Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

Newcomer Maxwell Simon is impressive as the sunny balladeer who morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kennedy, 1963) and Bobby Fox’s Guiteau gets the big vaudeville song-and-dance treatment, nailing the number’s frenetic, “it’s showtime” gaiety. Appropriately though, David Campbell (the tightly wound, upright Booth) is first among equals. “The country isn’t what it was,” Booth sings in 1865 and his anguish echoes through the ages.

Rob McDougall gets the show off to a strong start with his laconic, sonorously sung shooting gallery proprietor and Laura Bunting is wonderful in Something just Broke, the song that finally turns the musical’s gaze away from the assassins and towards the ordinary lives they affected.

It’s powerful material despite the occasional clunkiness in Weidman’s book, particularly as Sondheim’s score is hugely effective, co-opting popular musical styles appropriate to each assassin’s era. Good luck with getting Hinckley and Fromme’s soft-rock duet Unworthy of Your Love out of your head.

Tickets: $70-$78. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au. Duration: 1hr 45mins with no interval. Ends October 22.

Calamity Jane reclaimed

One Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, March 10.

The high-falutin’ way to describe director Richard Carroll’s Calamity Jane is to say its abundant meta-theatrics put a contemporary, ironic frame around an old-fashioned musical, revealing fresh insights. If that sounds deadly, fear not. The low-falutin’ truth is that along with being outstandingly clever, Calamity Jane is gut-bustingly funny and has an extraordinarily generous heart. Crucially, it is blessed with a central performance by Virginia Gay as fine as any seen on our musical stages since, I don’t know, forever.

Calamity Jane was presented last year as a staged reading in the Hayes’s Neglected Musicals series and turned out to be quite the surprise package for a piece that offers embarrassments on several fronts, including but not limited to race and gender.

CJ credit John Mcrae - Virginia Gay

Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane. Photo: John Mcrae

Take a look at Doris Day’s perky simplicity in the 1953 film that spawned the 1961 stage musical. Seen through the filter of the half-century since then, Calamity comes across as the town pet, patronised, indulged and patted on the head. If only she’d wash her face and put on a pretty frock: why, then she would be lovely and some man might condescend to marry her.

Gay’s Neglected Musicals turn, achieved with nothing more than a day’s rehearsal and book in hand, showed there could be a much more nuanced 21st-century take on a mushy mid-20th-century interpretation of an unconventional 19th-century woman. Calamity Jane had intriguing possibilities and a full production was put in the works. One likes to think the original Jane, real-life frontierswoman Martha Jane Cannary, would heartily approve.

Gay’s Calamity, or Calam as the good folk of Deadwood City call her, would smack you hard in the puss if you called her perky. She’s a roiling mass of powerful contradictions and ambiguities. Calam is physically strong and emotionally insecure; she can ride and shoot with the best of them but off a horse is a klutz; she’s blustery and bashful; resourceful and inept.

Only Calam would dash off to Chicago to bring back a superstar of the variety stage to save the bacon of old-duffer Golden Garter Saloon proprietor Henry Miller (Tony Taylor), who has stuffed up his entertainments program. Only Calam would bring back the wrong gal, ambitious but sweet Katie Brown (Laura Bunting). And only Calam, who has a heart the size of South Dakota, could make things right when Katie’s Golden Garter debut is a disaster.

She finds it much harder to sort out her love life, which is non-existent but so deeply wanted. Calam is desperate to be desired and perhaps it doesn’t really matter by whom. Whether Gay is assiduously tending to the wounds of her first choice, dashing Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce), or getting hilariously and Sapphically domestic with Katie, or discovering (spoiler alert!) that her old sparring mate Wild Bill Hickok (Anthony Gooley) feels something for her, her eagerness makes Calam achingly vulnerable.

CJ credit John Mcrae - Tony Taylor Virginia Gay and Anthony Gooley

Tony Taylor, Virginia Gay and Anthony Gooley. Photo: John Mcrae

The great beauty of Carroll’s production is how easily this emotional truth sits alongside the rollicking self-referential comedy, with its show-within-a-show-within-a-show jokes (“Now I’m going to sing Ev’ryone Complains about the Weather from Calamity Jane”), contemporary gags and happily blurred lines between actors and audience. The casting of Gooley as Hickok is particularly successful. He makes the legendary gunman a more observant and warmer figure than might be expected and he sings the wistful Higher than a Hawk with quiet grace.

The director makes having a tiny budget look like a brilliant artistic choice. The bijou cast size means Sheridan Harbridge and Rob Johnson have to take on several roles; both seize every chance to turn the multi-tasking into comedy gold of the highest grade. With music director Nigel Ubrihien at the upright piano there’s a band of precisely one, augmented by cast members on guitar, ukulele, trombone, accordion and tuba. And as there are only seven performers to represent rather more than seven characters, Ubrihien has to double as an actor too, which he does with aplomb.

Designer Lauren Peters’s bare-bones Wild West saloon, beautifully lit by Trent Suidgeest, works a treat and Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is a hoot. Adding to the general delight is the truly gorgeous score by Sammy Fain (music) and Paul Francis Webster (lyrics), blissfully heard unamplified. Every song is a winner but first among equals are The Black Hills of Dakota, sung a cappella by the ensemble, and Gay’s thrilling My Secret Love.

I confidently predict Calamity Jane will get a standing ovation from the entire house at every show. I have more reasons than the ones just enumerated here but try to see for yourself, if you can get in. The run has been extended but seats are scarce.

Calamity Jane runs until April 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 13.