Matt Holly, Nadine Garner, Sonya Suares and Mark Dickinson in Assassins | fortyfivedownstairs

To most Australians, Taft is a hairspray and not a president. All but the broadest strokes of American political history are a blank for most of us, so a show about the strange assortment of people who’ve attempted to assassinate American presidents is a vastly different animal here than it is on its native turf. Assassins, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s misfit musical opened last night at fortyfivedownstairs, and like the assassins it condemns and celebrates, it hurtles towards its goals with varying degrees of success.

Assassins doesn’t really have a narrative — its events happen over a span of 166 years. We go from John Wilkes Booth, the disgruntled actor who shot Abraham Lincoln in 1865, all the way through to John Hinckley, Jr, who shot Ronald Reagan to impress a teenage Jodie Foster.

Weidman’s book sparkles like it was written yesterday, but the showpiece here really is Sondheim’s score. Twenty-three years after its off-Broadway debut, it still packs a mean punch. Arguably his only pop song, the killer love duet “Unworthy of Your Love” — sung by John Hinkley, Jr and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme not to each other but to the objects of their affection: Jodie Foster and Charles Manson — is twice as heartbreaking and three times as fascinating as anything Stephen Schwartz has turned out. Nick Simpson-Deeks as The Balladeer — who has possibly the prettiest voice in musical theatre — gets the best material in the show, sharing The Ballad of Booth and The Ballad of Guiteau with the respective assassins, and busts out his masterful acting chops in his eleven-o-clock transformation into Lee Harvey Oswald.

Nadine Garner as the manic, gangly Sarah Jane Moore is phenomenal. Her brilliantly bizarre line readings and switchblade-sharp timing are as good as anything on a Broadway stage. Aaron Tsindos as Charles Guiteau, one of the few successful assassins — he killed James Garfield in 1881 — is marvellous. You can’t take your eyes off his demented, egomanical, smiley-faced soft-shoe. Matt Holly is heartbreakingly good as John Hinckley, Jr. The cast are — for the most part — stellar, but they’re cast adrift by a less-than-excellent production team.

Being a good student doesn’t make you a teacher. Sitting still while someone gives you a root canal doesn’t make you a dentist. Nobody ever got up from the chair, turned to their hairdresser with a steely look and said: “Now let me do you.” Directing and acting are vastly different disciplines and yet, when actors do this, few eyelids bat. Tyran Parke is a talented actor. He can sing. The gooey look in the cast’s eyes as they applauded him during their bows says he’s probably a pretty nice guy to work for. But he shouldn’t be in the director’s chair. Assassins flatlines several times before it’s over. The highs are stratospheric, but when the actors and the material aren’t doing all the work, the moments of silence and transition are awful.

There are times when the whole thing stinks of indecision. The 15 actors on stage are all working hard, but they’re also working in different directions. If nothing else, a director’s job is tone; to mould and shape a piece to make it consistent. Parke hasn’t even come halfway to doing this. Shane Nagle as Samuel Byck delivers an incredible performance, but his extended monologues are supposed to be funny. Here, they’re creepy and convincing, but a laugh riot they are not. Martin Lane as The Proprietor, the guy who’s meant to tie the whole thing together, spends the whole show looking a little uncertain, and delivers a bunch of lines in a bizarre monotone that makes little sense.

Musical director Luke Byrne has reduced the show’s orchestration from the usual 13 musicians to a paltry five, and it simply doesn’t work. Moments that should be triumphant are oddly hollow, and the absence of the reeds, bass and keyboards leaves so much of the score with nothing but tinkly, simpering piano. Rob Sowinski’s lighting is odd — very often the cast’s faces are in darkness. Crisanne Fox’s costumes are great, but her set is strange. Fortyfivedownstairs is an unconventional space, and hard to make theatre-like. The reveal of entirely different set pieces and a backdrop — the raw, window-laden wall of the space itself — towards the end of the show is brilliant, and goes some of the way to explaining why there was a fabric-draped mound in the centre of the stage the whole time.

For all its faults, this production of Assassins is still worth the ticket price for the cast alone. This is the first professional production of the show since the Melbourne Theatre Company did it in 1995; don’t wait 18 years for another one.

The details: Assassins plays fortyfivedownstairs until April 21. Tickets on the venue website.

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