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.

About last week … April 30-May 6

A week of contrasts started on Tuesday at the Sydney Opera House with the marvellous Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue, her follow-up to Songs for Nobodies. Both were written by Joanna Murray-Smith to give a narrative framework for Robinson’s rare talent and if Songs for Nobodies strikes one as the much better work, Pennsylvania Avenue still offers many pleasures. Robinson has an extraordinary ability to summon the voices and spirit of famous singers and is a fine actor as well. Her art is much more than mimicry. Pennsylvania Avenue is flashback theatre set in the White House as a woman, Harper Clements, recalls her life of service to a string of presidents, starting with JFK. The conceit is that she works with the entertainments wing and thus comes into contact with many famous singers over a 40 year-span. The single set rather traps Robinson into walking around, picking up and putting down a box of belongings as she prepares to leave her position (Simon Phillips directed), and the troubles in Clements’s life aren’t as fascinating as the evocation of events such as Sarah Vaughn’s performance at the White House. Nevertheless, the wide range of songs and Robinson’s skill keep you with her, even if at 90 minutes the show feels a tad long. Robinson does a killer Tammy Wynette (Stand By Your Man – associated, naturally, with the Clinton era), her Eartha Kitt (If You Go Away, the English version of Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas) is spine-tingling and her Bob Dylan (The Eve of Destruction) is pitch-perfect, if such a term can be applied to the Dylan vocal style. An excellent band, too, tucked away behind the curtain.

Bernadette Robinson

Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue

On Wednesday morning it was off to Wellington and Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz, which I have reviewed at length in the post below. A lovely work, albeit one that can grow as it gets more performances. As always, dramaturgical input is something very much needed in the making of story ballets and it is often put too far down the list of priorities. I’ve very much enjoyed reading British critics talking about the need for dramaturgical and directorial input into Liam Scarlett’s new three-act ballet for the Royal, Frankenstein. I’ve been banging on about this for decades. But back to RNZB, where choreographer and artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has a very strong base from which to work. And we’re not talking huge changes.

Thursday night brought the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You, which I missed when it was staged in Australia in 2003. My review is in The Australian today (May 9) and I’ll put it up on the blog later in the week. Suffice to say that as someone who was young in the 1970s I had a very good time indeed.

WWRY2471_PhotobyJeffBusby_R-1024x683

Casey Donovan as the Killer Queen in We Will Rock You. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thank goodness for Australian Theatre for Young People’s Friday matinee of Spring Awakening, a production I would otherwise not have been able to fit into the schedule. And I would have missed a beauty. It’s salutary to note that Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play was banned in England until 1963, a clear affirmation of its revolutionary nature. Well, and of British idiocy in respect to censorship. Wedekind’s theme of burgeoning teenage sexuality and adult fear and hypocrisy was incendiary then, and now. Despite children having almost unfettered access to sexual material, there are powerful people who still refuse to allow those children to have straightforward, realistic, all-embracing information and discussion.

The 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) is set in the time of Wedekind’s play yet feels utterly contemporary, and not only because of the indie-rock score. The young ATYP actors are shiningly unselfconscious and thoroughly absorbed and absorbing. Jessica Rookeward’s Wendla glows in spirit and voice and the two leading men, James Raggett (Melchior) and Josh McElroy (Moritz) could not be bettered, so passionate and so different. Mitchell Butel, on only his second directorial outing, proves that should acting jobs dry up – unlikely; Butel is one of the busiest and most versatile men on the Australian stage – he can segue effortlessly to the other side. He gets superb performances of detail, clarity and conviction from relatively inexperienced performers and creates an utterly believable world. The design from Simon Greer (set), Damien Cooper and Ross Graham (lights) and David Bergman (sound) is simplicity itself and all the better for it. Amy Campbell’s choreography is brilliant, as is Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction. Bravi.

It appears there may still be some seats for the Spring Awakening matinees of May 11 and 13. I’d advise jumping on them immediately.

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

On Friday it was off to Carriageworks and a showing of the four finalists in the Keir Choreographic Award, a generous biennial prize (yay!). I’ll write more about it later but wasn’t surprised that Ghenoa Gela carried off both the main award of $30,000 and the people’s vote, which added $10,000 to Gela’s prize. Put simply, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. Gela’s dancers were, despite the shielding of their faces, women of flesh and blood and their movement connected one with resonant questions about meaning inherent in or imposed on indigenous dance.

Pennsylvania Avenue, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until May 22.

Spring Awakening, ATYP Studio 1, Wharf 4, Sydney, until May 14.

The Wizard of Oz, various cities in New Zealand until June 12.

We Will Rock You, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until June 26 and then touring Australia into 2017.

Little Shop of Horrors

Luckiest Productions & Tinderbox Productions. Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 23.

RESISTANCE is useless Earthlings. Little Shop of Horrors is back and roaring for warm blood. Human blood. Your blood. I doubt it will be denied, at least in cult-musicals circles. The greatly cherished show has an almost mystical following and, with this production, should recruit a new generation of devotees.

To recap: after an unusual atmospheric disturbance, lovable loser Seymour Krelborn (Brent Hill) stumbles upon a weird plant and brings it back to the drooping Skid Row florist shop where he works alongside another of life’s punching bags, self-sabotaging Audrey (Esther Hannaford). Given the name Audrey II by lovesick Seymour, the plant soon reveals itself to be carnivorous. Rapaciously so. What could possibly go wrong? And what will nebbish Seymour do to hold on to his dreams once he becomes something of a celebrity thanks to Audrey II, with a concomitant boost to his previously minimal store of courage?

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1141

Brent Hill as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical takes its B-grade schlock-horror plot from a 1960 Roger Corman quickie film but it has much more heart and substance than that may suggest. At the Hayes, in a tightrope act pulled off with impeccable style and sophistication, director Dean Bryant expertly digs into the multiplicity of dark interpretations implicit in the text while keeping things light and fleet enough on the surface to keep the laughs coming.

Hanging over the story are those mid-20th century fears of invasion and subjugation in which aliens stood in for the enemy at the gate (think Orson Welles’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds and John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids just to name two). These fears are not entirely unknown today. Little Shop of Horrors is also a cautionary tale about the dangerous seductions of fame and money, particularly for someone as innocent as Seymour.

But it’s the central story of doomed love and impossible aspirations that Bryant and his production team really hit hard and strong, just as they did in 2014 with their thrilling reworking of Sweet Charity.

Little Shop of Horrors premiered Off-Broadway in 1982, distant enough from Corman’s film to be able to indulge in fond nostalgia for the 1960s and having it both ways by casting an arch but critical eye over the lingering 1950s social values of the time. Bryant sails audaciously close to the wind in his conceptions of Audrey and Seymour. When we first see Hannaford’s Audrey her emotional fragility is heightened dramatically by the production design, an expressionistic rendering of the dismal grey lives of the denizens of Skid Row. Hannaford looks wraith-like and her not-entirely-American accent and twitchy, fey gestures make her seem already not of this world.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill. Photo: Jeff Busby

Audrey’s resigned subservience to her sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello DDS (Scott Johnson) – she’s never allowed to forget Orin’s academic credentials – is exceptionally painful and gives exceptional poignancy to her wistful fantasy of a safe, well-appointed home (Somewhere That’s Green). The song is funny and heartbreaking all at once and Hannaford is attuned to every nuance. To hear her wish for not only a washer but a dryer too is to hear an entire life story. Hannaford’s performance is exquisitely calibrated: strange, beautiful and unearthly, even when raising the roof with Hill’s Seymour in Suddenly Seymour, where tenderness and a thumping great love ballad collide magnificently.

From Hill, also in tour-de-force vocal and dramatic form, we get to understand that even someone as sweet and gentle as Seymour is liable to turn into a kind of monster if he chooses to make compact with one. Still, that might be better than what he had to start with, no? And anyway, once on that slippery slope there’s no getting off.

Bryant’s Little Shop of Horrors lets such thoughts niggle tenaciously while making whoopee with the musical’s trashy laughs, irresistible songs and grand guignol gestures. Erth Visual & Physical Inc’s series of Audrey II plants (Jamie Clennett, animator) is spectacularly successful, as are the designs by Owen Phillips (set), Tim Chappel (costumes) and Ross Graham (lights). In a brilliant coup de théâtre they transform a dismal grey world into riotous colour when success comes calling at the decrepit business run by Mr Mushnik (Tyler Coppin). Andrew Hallsworth’s pitch-perfect choreography is the cherry on top. Well, that and the darling red bias-cut coat Chappel gives Audrey in Act II. Divine.

While Hill and Hannaford are the glorious linchpin, the full cast of nine is a knockout, particularly Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chloe Zuel as a sassy, sexy Greek chorus in close-harmony girl-group guise and Scott Johnson’s pure macho evil as Orin that makes you laugh and gasp in horror all at once.

As can often happen at the Hayes on opening night the sound from music director Andrew Warboys’s small band was sometimes too boomy and precious lyrics were smothered. It’s a hard space to get right it would seem, but one is grateful for the gems it produces. One more thing: Little Shop looks too big for the 110-seat Hayes, but this was always likely. There’s a national tour ahead in more capacious venues.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on February 25.

Little Shop of Horrors ends in Sydney on March 19. Adelaide from April 20, Melbourne from May 4, Canberra from May 25, Brisbane from June 1, Perth from August 4.