Right on target – Assassins remount thrills and kills

ASSASSINS by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, directed by Adam Brazier (BirdLand). At The Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Runs to February 20. $33. 416-538-0988. See listings. Rating: NNNN

Spanning the years from abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan, this star-spangled tour de force traces, in “documentary vaudeville” style, the makings of America’s motley crew of successful and would-be presidential assassins.[rssbreak]

The plot, which brings these temporally separated assassins together onstage, is pretty thin. But the revue structure allows the action to jump between non-linear scenes (some eschewing song and dance altogether) to present the tangle of motives driving each assassin to hatch a deadly plan – in the process disrupting the simplistic notion that all assassins are evil.

Martin Julien delivers an uneven vocal performance in the opening number as a symbolic Uncle Sam-like gun peddler. The sequence clearly needs work. But the strong ensemble is quick to the rescue, and once the vignettes begin, it’s clear the cast is packing heat.

The funniest and most moving character of the lot is Samuel Byck (played by a dishevelled-looking Graham Abbey clad in a dirty Santa suit), a failed salesman who in 1974 unsuccessfully tried to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House in a bid to off Richard Nixon.

The show’s strongest scenes show Byck recording a series of tapes in his car before the attempt. Abbey plays up Byck’s obvious psychotic tendencies for laughs (and also nails his Nixon impression), but Byck’s hopelessness resonates on a deeper level.

Prop designer Beth Kates accentuates the pathos by putting a banana next to Byck’s recorder and microphone – an insightful if subtle reference to Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

Director Adam Brazier strikes a good balance between serious and comic moments (wisely favouring the latter) and keeps the show’s action brisk.

Erika Connor’s costumes are also funny, especially the dorky 80s loser look John Hinckley (Christopher Stanton) sports when he goes off to shoot Reagan (and prove his love to Jodie Foster), and those giant 70s sunglasses Sara Jane Moore (Eliza-Jane Scott) wears when her gun jams in Gerald Ford’s face.

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