Staging an amateur premiere of an unfamiliar musical is risky for any amateur company, as there is no certainty that tickets will be sold, and that it will be successful. However, with the right production team and cast, there is potential for it to be a triumphant success. Such is the case for Sterling based amateur theatre company The Hills Musical Theatre Company, whose latest production of the Adelaide amateur premiere of Sondheim's thrilling classic Assassins, is a show which, under the direction of Monique Hapgood and Macintyre Howie Reeve, is a killer, quite literally, which comes as no surprise, with the Hills having previously performed Sondheim classics Sweeney Todd (2011), A Little Night Music (2013) and Company (2015). Much like these previous shows, Assassins is an excellent production, and deserves every success.
With a book by John Weidman, Assassins is a dark comedy which, through a series of vignettes, documents and offers insights into, the varied motivations and desires of nine misfit men and women who either attempted to, or were successful in, assassinating American Presidents, from Abraham Lincoln, to John F Kennedy, and while Weidman uses poetic license in telling the stories of each assassin, what remains historically true, is the fact that each felt a sense of entitlement and in some way betrayed, by failed promises and not receiving the "prize" which was promised to them. Moreover, Weidman's book is complemented well by Stephen Sondheim's intelligent and complex music and lyrics, which serves as an extra storytelling device, contributing excellently to the heavy storyline and providing relief from very serious subject matter. Perhaps the best way to describe this show, is an educational historical show which makes history fun.
In a show with such serious and heavy subject matter and complex music and lyrics, it is of most importance that an appropriate cast and production team is assembled, one which can cope with the demands and know how to make an entertaining production. It is, therefore, most pleasing that the Hills have risen well to this challenge, and assembled an exceptional cast and suitable production team to bring this story to life and make it an entertaining production.
Megan Donald is excellent as Proprietor/Emma Goldman. While Donald commands the stage well from the very moment she enters, using suitable facial expressions, a slow and sinister walk, strong physicality and occasional stares to present the Proprietor as one who is dark, eerie, sinister and smug, embodying the thoughts and motivations of each of the assassins, she provides a nice contrast as Goldman, through using a different accent, slower and clearer delivery of dialogue and slightly faster walk, to portray Goldman as an important anarchist who others look up to.
Megan Donald (centre) gives an eerie delivery as the sinister Proprietor. Also pictured from L to R: Bronwen James, Dylan Rufus, Dave MacGillivray, Tom Dubois, Casmira Hambledon, Robin Schmelzkopf, Laurence Croft, as the assassins. Photo: Mark Analok. Source: Supplied
David MacGillivray is sublime as John Wilkes Booth, first successful assassin (of President Abraham Lincoln), and pioneer to the other assassins. No stranger to performing, MacGillivray is confident and exhibits an impressive stage presence, commanding the stage throughout, and gives good contrast between Booth's charisma and charm, but also the underlying rage and anger which simmers beneath the surface. MacGillivray also matches this portrayal with strong powerhouse vocals which are equally excellent and pleasant to the ear.
Dave MacGillivray is sublime as John Wilkes Booth. Photo: Mark Anolak. Source: Supplied.
Casmira Hambledon and Bronwen James provide much of the comic relief in the show as unsuccessful assassins of President Gerald Ford, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore respectively, and their scenes together are a delight to watch, as they have exceptional chemistry and relate extremely well. Regarding their characters specifically, whilst Hambledon uses slow delivery of dialogue and impeccable diction to portray Fromme's strong-willed, headstrong and domineering nature with feelings of self-righteousness, James' delivery is deliberately over the top, using frequent hysterical laughter, disjointed sentences and excellent comic timing to portray Moore as the opposite, a woman who is incompetent, flaky, unfocused, deranged and manic and one who is absolutely uncertain of her desires and who she wants to be.
Casmira Hambledon (LEFT) and Bronwen James (RIGHT) have exceptional chemistry as Lynette Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore. Photo: Mark Analok. Source: Supplied.
Laurence Croft is exceptional as disenchanted and disgruntled attempted assassin (of President Richard Nixon) Samuel Byck. Through his deliberately unsettling delivery of dialogue, Croft leaves one feeling unsettled, as he effectively portrays Byck's struggle to control his frustration at promises which he feels have not been fulfilled, gradually causing him to become more enraged as the show progresses.
Laurence Croft gives an unsettling portrayal as assassin Samuel Byck. Photo: Mark Analok. Source: Supplied.
As The Balladeer and later, final assassin (of President John F Kennedy) Lee Harvey Oswald, Robbie Mitchell is exceptional. While Mitchell's excellent stage presence and confidence as The Balladeer is complemented by his beautiful vocals, making him the ultimate storyteller, he provides good contrast as Oswald, through delivering dialogue with conviction and strength, to encapsulate Oswald's troubled and confused feelings at feeling a lack of belonging, ultimately resulting in him being influenced by the other assassins to give his life meaning by assassinating Kennedy.
Robbie Mitchell exudes much confidence and has beautiful vocals as the story teller, The Balladeer. Photo: Mark Analok. Source: Supplied.
The preceding actors are also well supported by a talented ensemble of eight actors, and lead actors Megan Doherty, Dylan Rufus, Robin Schmelzkopf, Tom Dubois as Giuseppe Zangara (attempted to assassinate President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt), John Hinckley Jr (attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan), Charles Guiteau (assassinated President James Garfield) and Leon Czolgosz (assassinated President William McKinley) respectively, who each use appropriate tone of voice and physicality, to give quality and substance to their character and their evil motivations for their attacks on the Presidents.
Megan Doherty (centre) gives a fine performance as assassin Giuseppe Zangara. Also pictured from L to R: Loren Panno, Sean Tanner, Vanessa Lee Shirley, Wendy Rayner, Tielah-Jade Cannon, Christian Evans, Simon Barnett, Regan Holmes, as ensemble. Photo: Mark Analok. Source: Supplied.
While the actors are important to the success of a production, what is also important, is the production team and designers, who help bring the story to life. On this occasion, the team which has been assembled, give a commendable effort.
Though the simple set design by Cameron Hapgood sees a large scaffolding platform centre stage, and flats with a grey colour palette, complemented by the proscenium walls enveloped in clippings from old newspapers and magazines and large head shots of American Presidents, is functional, it would have been nice to see colour used more effectively to contribute to the feel of the fairground shooting range in the first scene of the musical, and to have the actors use the scaffolding more effectively, otherwise it becomes a distraction and appears pointless.
This set is also well complemented by appropriate and effective lighting design by Matt Ralph which is used in such a way to indicate locations and time of day, and sees a particular focus on red lights to foreshadow the evil which is to come.
Mention must also be made of the glorious costumes, which are intricate and elaborate and a good reflection of each character's different status and time period, and demonstrate thoughtful and careful design.
Regarding the orchestra, Andrew Groch's 13 piece orchestra skillfully navigate Sondheim's complex score, and produce a beautiful in-tune sound, albeit difficult to hear at times. Similarly, on opening night, the actor's microphones could have benefited from a greater volume as some of the important dialogue and lyrics were also difficult to hear, though, as the season progresses, the sound quality will improve.
Ultimately, the driving factor which led each assassin to conduct their evil acts was their desire for attention, to receive a prize and to be happy, as, in the words of the Proprietor, everybody's got the right to be happy. While this musical documents the motivations of historical assassins, it is unfortunate that many people today are still searching for a prize which they can claim, the thing which will fulfil their desire for happiness. It is excellent to know therefore, that this production provides such a way to be happy, even if it just be for 110 minutes, as this production is one which is entertaining and fills one with much joy, leaving the theatre humming the songs long after the final curtain has fallen, and that's quite a prize. As for a prize for the Hills for producing such a show, their prize is the well deserved thunderous applause from a most appreciating audience. That, is true happiness, and it's just as well that it comes without the need to shoot a President.
Assassins continues at the Stirling Community Hall every weekend until November 23. For tickets and more information, click here.
***Patrons are advised that Assassins runs for 110 minutes with no interval, and contains heavy adult themes and coarse language. It is not suitable for children***
Patrons please also note that programmes for the production will be on sale in the foyer for $5, and it is highly recommended that patrons purchase one, and pay close attention to the exceptional graphic design by Matt Ralph from 5 Quarter Designs. The programme design is remarkable.