Photo | Kevin Yue
VCDS’ final show of the season, John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, opens in a shooting gallery. As a collection of misfits wanders onto the stage, the proprietor of the game, an enticing Cole Currie, invites them to join and promises them that all of their problems can be solved by shooting the president. The rest of the show explores the idea of the American dream—represented by a Balladeer deftly played by Brandon Vollick—and the attempted assassins’ motivations, stories, and philosophies.
Though the musical is framed within the context of a carnival game—and the colourful set certainly shows this—most of the show happens outside of any specific time or place, opting instead to jump from era to era in order, with focus on specific individuals and political moments from American history. This concept is interesting, but it made the plot hard to follow at times, especially to a Canadian audience that may not have the historical background and knowledge needed to understand it.
The performances were phenomenal with not one bad performance in the main cast. From Kenzie Tsang’s powerful and exuberant portrayal of Giuseppe Zangara, and Matthew Fonte’s naturalistic Sam Byck, to Gianni Sallese’s magnetic John Wilkes Booth, every actor was able to steal the show at the appropriate time and still share the stage with eight other equally unhinged killers. Despite some scenes being more substantial than others, every actor infused their energy and brought even the dullest scenes to life. If anything, Assassins was a great vehicle for these actors to showcase their immense talent, despite plot issues.
The great weakness of the show, however, was the tech. Though the set was eye-catching and well-designed from an aesthetic perspective, it wasn’t functional. There were certain parts of the set that weren’t always lit; the top level of the set, for example, was just outside of the light’s reach, casting an unfortunate shadow on the actors’ faces when they were on that level. The gunshot sound effects were not well co-ordinated, creating an awkward second’s worth of silence after a very audible “click” from the prop gun. The band was slightly too close to the lights so they casted shadows during especially intense solos.
There were also some coordination blips that further weakened the otherwise engrossing show. During the electrocution of Giuseppe Zangara, Tsang’s costume hat fell off and clanged around on the stage for a bit, disturbing the dynamic performance. At one point in the show, an actress entered too early and was crouched behind a table, muttering curse words that could be clearly heard in the audience, before being dismissed by the Proprietor in an uncomfortable but necessary save. The noose that eventually executes Charles Guiteau was so precariously dangled that the audience was more worried for actor Nam Nguyen’s real neck than focused on his energetic rendition of “I am Going to the Lordy.” Though it is understandable to have some mistakes on opening night, there were a few too many; they really detracted from the professional quality of the production and disrupted the flow of the show.
Overall, the show was a bit of a mixed experience. Though the performances were all wonderful and the music was filled with the usual Sondheim magic—played expertly by a 14-piece band led by Sam Poole—it was hindered by technical mistakes and sloppiness that brought the audience out of the story. Rather than the high-concept show that it was advertised as, Assassins was a series of some great scenes, monologues, and performances strung together loosely by a carnival game concept.