This musical tells the story of the assassins and would-be-assassins of American PresidentsEvelina Gumileva

The haze is thick and the wood-panelled, tiered set is impressive, lined with various opulent lighting effects, before Martha Cook’s lazily sardonic Proprietor wheels on her ‘gun shop’ booth. It’s a promising and atmospheric start. However, Caroline Yu’s production of Sondheim’s musical journey through time, assassinations and antiheroes, feels simultaneously a little overblown and a little lacklustre.

Assassins leads the audience through a timeline of those who have assassinated or attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States, often by way of the Balladeer (James Daly) representing the optimism of the American Dream. Despite some first-night mishaps of blaring speakers and forgotten lyrics, there were obviously many great things here. The cast all have powerful voices and are able to maintain high energy levels throughout.

Some highlights in performance were Alice Jay and Lydia Pickett as Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, both perfectly embodying their characters and milking the comedic potential of their scenes together for all they’re worth. Jay also pairs well with Joe Sefton’s John Hinckley in ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, which they perform beautifully. Joe Pieri as Giuseppe Zangara sings strongly and fluently while managing his Italian accent, and Milo Callaghan’s monologues as Sam Byck are superbly dramatic scenes in both delivery and staging. Yu’s choice to sit Callaghan at the front of the stage, addressing the audience with the curtain still down from the interval, is particularly effective.

Theo Heymann’s set and lighting design are mesmerising. The sight of James Daly as Lee Harvey Oswald having just shot Kennedy, walking into a wall of lights in a stars and stripes formation is stunning. Indeed, my main impressions walking away were of the set and the lighting, important aspects that nevertheless dominated the production at times. Some lighting effects felt unnecessary, such as the dramatic pools of white light during Fromme’s monologue about Charlie Manson’s nihilistic vision of the future and during Fromme and Moore’s clumsy stand-off. Costume design from Charlotte Husnjak and Sophie Van Horne was creative and well-judged – look out for the Proprietor’s gold sequinned lapels and pinstriped trousers, and Lynette Fromme’s gaudy ensemble.

“A production for fans of spectacle and flashy musical theatre rather than challenging drama”Evelina Gumileva

In a musical that can either be played as dark and unsettling or flashy and jovial, with scenes followed by either tense silences or rounds of applause, Yu has aimed decidedly for the latter. Daly’s Balladeer skips about the stage with innocent enthusiasm, accompanying ‘Someone Sing the Song’ with an excited gesture at himself, and in the final sequence of ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, a disco ball descends from above.

But many of these effects started to feel gimmicky. After much brilliant dark comedy from Milo Callaghan as Samuel Byck, his final moments before attempting to assassinate Richard Nixon were another comic turn, evoking laughter and delighted applause, when a stronger contrast and lasting impression could have been delivered by creating a more sinister final image to acknowledge the multiple murders and suicide about to occur. By halfway through Act Two, I started to long for some tense silences, threat or genuine emotion. Such emotion finally came with a chillingly flawless rendition of ‘Something Just Broke’, led by Meg Coslett, laying bare the cast’s musical and dramatic talent without gimmicks.

Robin Franklin is a strong performer with powerful stage presence and a singing voice to be reckoned with, but here he seems miscast in the role of John Wilkes Booth. His acting comes across as one-tone, consisting of a persistent good-natured performativity as if simply assigning Booth the role of ‘actor’, and his alternative emotion, anger, is a louder version of this. As ‘The Ballad of Booth’ is one of the emotional keystones of the show, more vulnerability in Franklin’s performance of Booth’s dying moments would have been beneficial, though this was made difficult by standing him downstage, apparently eschewing any fear, weakness or physical pain. Meg Coslett’s deeply sympathetic Leon Czolgosz, waiting in line to shoot William McKinley, casts looks of helpless uncertainty out to the audience, those of a man out of his depth but with no choice. Perhaps the portrayal of Booth could have done with more of these flashes of emotional complexity.

Yu’s Assassins is a production for fans of spectacle and flashy musical theatre rather than challenging drama, and it could do with some more polish, but there’s a lot of talent and hard work on show, and it definitely makes for an enjoyable night.

Assassins is on at the ADC Theatre until 17 February

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