Stephen Sondheim’s musical The Assassins opens with a fairground proprietor handing out guns for a game called Shoot the President. It is classic Sondheim; putting social issues front and centre stage. If the gun theme – there’s even a ballad about how guns are made –  was controversial at Assassins’ 1990 premiere it is even more so now.

Assassins. Image by Philip Gostelow..JPG
The nine assassins in BSSTC’s production of Assassins. Photo Philip Gostelow

However America’s increasing issue with gun-related violence is not particularly relevant to Australian audiences. And Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s historical overview of the nine attempted assassinations of American presidents is not our history lesson. But I’m guessing Black Swan State Theatre Company’s artistic director Clare Watson chose the work (which opened this week) for its thematic undercurrents : celebrity politics, the (failed) American dream of social mobility, the ‘right’ to happiness, dysfunctional families and the human need for love and belonging.

And of course for its music because this history lesson unfolds with wit, economy (1 hour and 40 minutes with no interval) and a marvellous mash up of American music styles. One of the highlights on opening night of the BSSTC production was the on-stage band directed from the piano by Jangoo Chapkhana. The four piece (including banjo) roamed from bluegrass to Broadway with hoedowns, ballads and pop songs thrown in along the way.

Director Roger Hodgman’s new production for BSSTC focused on the dark underbelly of American culture and the dramatic tension never waned. Mark Howett’s lighting was dim and smoky with dramatic side-lighting emphasising the emotional isolation of the various assassins.

Lawrie Cullen-Tait’s set design included a life-size car and a backdrop of decrepit brick archways which provided a relatively blank screen for Michael Carmody’s video projections. For those of us who weren’t full bottle on American political history Carmody’s historical footage aided in telling the story and even injected humour, particularly the twin photos of Jodie Foster and cult leader Charles Manson.

Mackenzie Dunn and Caitlin Beresford -Ord. Assassins. Image credit Philip Gostelow.JPG
WAAPA graduate Mackenzie Dunn (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme) and veteran Caitlin Beresford-Ord (Sara Jane Moore) Photo Philip Gostelow

The cast included several young graduates from the WAAPA alongside industry veterans. Standouts included Brendan Hanson as the smooth and sonorous assassin John Wilkes Booth (Abraham Lincoln), Caitlin Beresford-Ord as the deranged but lovable Sara Jane Moore (Gerald Ford attempt), Will O-Mahony as the smiling assassin who delivered a hilarious high-kicking Ballad of Guiteau and Finn Alexander who transitioned from sweet-voiced balladeer to distraught murderer Lee Harvey Oswald (J.F. Kennedy). Luke Hewitt sounded vocally strained as the Proprieter but otherwise the remaining cast (Mackenzie Dunn as Lynette Fromme, Nick Eynaud as John Hinckley, Geoff Kelso as Samuel Byck, Nathan Stark as Giuseppe Zangara , Cameron Steens as Leon Czolgosz and Natasha Vickery as Emma Goldman) were in excellent form.

The intense finale with its alternative national anthem for those dispossessed by the American Dream was a powerful ensemble moment. As the cumulative weight of history’s misfit assassins bore down on Oswald he found the offer of joining their ranks, of finally belonging, too much to resist. He picked up his gun and lined up J.F. Kennedy and in a sly rewrite of the Declaration of Independence (‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness’) the cast sing: ‘Everybody’s got the right to be happy’.

Sondheim’s escapist commentary is more relevant than ever. Definitely worth checking out this gripping and very funny social/musical/political history lesson from one of America’s greatest stage writers.

The Assassins continues until July 1st at the Heath Ledger Theatre.