Some sympathy for the devils in StageWorks Toronto’s Assassins

Assassins colourized alley“Attention must be paid!” This line from The Death of a Salesman is used as a major talking point by John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. Not able to achieve recognition by regular means, there are some people who will go to extreme measures to be noticed, undertaking the death of another.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins – music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, and directed by Lorraine Kimsa and Michael Yaneff, with music direction by Tom Kerr – takes us through a history of nine American assassins, from the 1860s to the 1970s.

Starting at a carnival in limbo, the Proprietor introduces eight of the assassins, arming each with a period appropriate handgun. Spinning the Wheel of Presidents, the Proprietor starts it all off with Booth in 1865 – the father of American presidential assassinations. Our trip through history is not a chronological one, and each outcome is interwoven with various scenes of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore on their comic, bumbling road to their target Gerald Ford. And throughout, the Balladeer adds musical moral commentary on the situation at hand.

It’s not all dark comedy fun and games, though – the final assassination presented – the most affecting historically and personally for America – is nurtured to its horrible fruition by Booth and the others as they coax Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger on John F. Kennedy from that Dallas Book Depository window.

Overall, an excellent cast, serving up some strong vocals – with some stand-outs. Luke Witt is very effective as the devilishly seductive Proprietor, while Hugh Ritchie is beautifully bright and soothing as the Balladeer – the devil and the angel on opposite shoulders of the collective assassins’ consciousness. Rich Burdett is remarkable as Booth, combining a striking, commanding presence and powerful vocals – and his scene with Oswald (played with great passion and inner conflict by Nicholas Arnold) is particularly chilling. Will van der Zyl delivers a hilarious and poignant performance as the crazy Santa Samuel Byck, in his tape recorded letters to Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon, outlining his plan to fly a 747 at Nixon in 1974. Laurie Hurst is lovably kooky as Moore and Christie Stewart is adorably deluded as Fromme – and Stewart does a lovely duet, “Unworthy of Your Love,” with Mike Buchanan (nice work as the sensitive, but extremely troubled John Hinckley Jr.), a love song to their celebrity obsessions Charles Manson and Jodi Foster.

Collectively, the Ensemble (Anthony Botelho, Stephen Flett, Lauren Lazar, Suzanne Miller and Peter Nielson) give a lovely, moving performance of “Something Just Broke,” presenting first-hand citizen accounts of where they were when they heard about their president’s death, led by especially strong vocals by Lazar. And the assassins do a great job with “Another National Anthem” and the finale “Everybody’s Got the Right” – hymns of the disenfranchised and marginalized, left behind economically and in some cases dealing with mental health issues. Eerie in light of ongoing current events in the U.S., where everybody’s got the right to own a gun, but not everyone has access to mental health care or equal opportunity – and the deadly, tragic combination these can make.

With shouts to set designer Michelle Tracey, and lighting designers Karen Brown and Paul Harris, for the aesthetically pleasing, very effective multi-level creepy carnival in limbo, with great use of back-screen projection for the footage of the Kennedys making their way from the airport and through Dallas to that shot that was heard around the world. And the use of balloons on set to create the gunshot sounds was both clever and spooky.

Everyone needs to be loved and everyone needs to matter. But not everyone goes about it by deciding to kill the President of the United States. And rightly so. For a couple of hours, we hear their stories, their reasons – and perhaps we can offer up some sympathy. But in light of a deadly, final outcome, we can only feel so sorry for these poor devils.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins is a rousing, darkly entertaining and moving piece of musical cautionary storytelling. Attention must be paid.

Assassins continues its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 27.

Toronto Fringe: A funny, charming ‘what if’ tale of Dorothy & friends in Emerald City – A musical play

emerald_cityEver wonder what happened to Dorothy and the Oz gang after she returned to Kansas? Well, wonder no more. Baby Gumm Productions presents Darren Stewart-Jones’ Emerald City – A musical play (based on the beloved Wizard of Oz characters by L. Frank Baum) at the Tarragon Main Space as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival.

As our story opens, life is not so much fun for Dorothy (Christie Stewart), Scarecrow (Christopher Vergara), Tin Man (Matthew Fuller) and Lion (Dillan Chiblow), as each struggles with his/her life problems. And Glinda (Rory Bray), once Dot’s BFF, is too busy with her new career as a super model to spend time with her friend. As the show progresses, we follow Dorothy and her trio of intrepid Oz pals through a group therapy session with the invisible Dr. Oz, as – through song and dance – their troubles and secrets are revealed.

This is a lovely cast with an impressive set of pipes. Stewart’s Dorothy is a go-getter, full of gumption and hope, and pondering her situation as a modern-day single gal. Vergara brings a wonderfully endearing presence and physically to Scarecrow; Fuller’s Tin Man is sharply handsome and warmly supportive, struggling with staying real and logical, but finding it difficult to mask a broken heart; and Chiblow is adorably anxious as Lion, sweet and cuddly in a leopard print onesie. And Bray nails material girl Glinda, delivering her vocals with the trademark vibrato.

With shouts to music director Nicole Byblow, choreographer Allison Beula and designer Henry Keeler’s fabulous modern-day costumes.

Emerald City is a funny, charming ‘what if’ tale of Dorothy and her Oz friends.
Running until July 13 at the Tarragon Main Space, you can check for exact dates/times for Emerald City here.