Tied to a chair, Giuseppe Zangara (Richard Colvin) cries out fiercely: “No laughs! No fun!” Given that he’s being punished for attempting to assassinate Roosevelt and that the chair in question is the electric one, his emotions are both bitter and unsurprising. Worryingly, these are also the abiding qualities of Nikolai Foster’s revival of “Assassins” for Sheffield’s Crucible theater.
Like “Company,” Stephen Sondheim’s scintillating musical theater study of fear and misery in matrimony, “Assassins” replaces plot with a series of positions in support of an idea. Sondheim and book writer John Weidman set up a cross between a rogues gallery and a shooting gallery to give us nine disparate people who have assassinated or attempted to assassinate American presidents.
The mordant tone of this sung essay in illusions and delusions will always make it a hard sell. The original 1990 production at Playwrights Horizons ran just under two months, and even Joe Mantello’s masterly, critically lauded 2004 Broadway production couldn’t muster enough auds for a sustained run. “Assassins” is an even tougher proposition in the U.K. for one simple reason. When the balladeer sings: “Someone tell the story,” it’s less an introduction, more an imperative. Brits know little or nothing of American history or the individuals involved.
Foster and his designer Peter McKintosh address the issue head on, building video screens into the spooky derelict carnival set upon which names and dates appear. Unfortunately, the writing of the book and score is so compact that there is usually too little time to take in the information. Unease sets in as you sense you are missing things.
There’s no faulting Foster’s skilled, well-drilled cast who sing well and work hard — too hard — at the detail. On the plus side, Billy Carter is a ringingly impassioned but nicely measured Leon Czolgosz whose fearsome devotion to righting injustice led him to assassinate President McKinley. Ian Bartholomew, the Baker in London’s superbly iconoclastic premiere of “Into the Woods,” delivers a high-polish portrait of deluded Charles Guiteau.
Yet the wit of Bartholomew’s skittish, light-footed performance is a rare beacon in this overwhelmingly dark production. Like Clint Eastwood’s movie “Mystic River” where virtually every scene was self-consciously shot on a gloomy, rainy day, you start longing for even a glimpse of warm light. Here, lighting designer Guy Hoare supplies copious amounts of hazy smoke so that isolated shafts of light are made visible in surrounding darkness. It’s dramatic, but, like too much of the production, overly portentous.
In fact, what shines through most strongly is that a production can suffer from a surfeit of conviction. Determined to hammer home that this is less about the American dream than the American nightmare, Foster keeps his foot on the anger accelerator and pushes the show’s analysis past fierceness into fury. Everyone’s emotional volume is turned up too high. Not only does that flatten the humor, the characters grow inaudible with rage, making the show hard to watch or care about.
To present material as potentially rebarbative as this, you have to seduce the audience. The balladeer is there to do just that, but Foster allows Matt Rawle to give the folksy character the same hard vocal edge and murderous gleam in the eye that the assassins have.
There are far more layers in the score than Foster illuminates. The cloyingly sweet harmonies in the Carpenters-style duet “I Am Unworthy of Your Love” is there to reveal the dramatic complexity at the show’s dark heart. The gorgeous sounds spilling from the throats of would-be murderers John Hinckley and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme should simultaneously horrify and elicit sympathy. What should be painful and touching comes across as one-dimensional derangement.
“Something Just Broke,” the number added for the Sam Mendes-directed 1992 London premiere and subsequently retained in most productions, is cut from the show. The song, a voicing of reactions to the killings, has its critics who argue that it’s an awkward and unnecessary shift of perspective. Its inclusion here could have provided much needed breathing space in Foster’s driven production that hurtles into overkill.