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Assassins
Playhouse, June 12, until July 1

★★★★

Assassins may be that rarity: a musical that's still daring, edgy and innovative 28 years on, but it was instantly obvious that Bobby Fox's fall when his character, Charles Guiteau​, is hanged, was not scripted.

Kate Cole, David Campbell, Bobby Fox and Jason Winston in Assassins.

Photo: Prudence Upton

David Campbell (playing the lead role of John Wilkes Booth) announced an unscheduled interval, after which director Dean Bryant told us Fox was hospital-bound with a swollen ankle, and that associate producer Spencer Bignell would cover, script in hand, for the show's final third.

There's nothing like an on-stage set-back to swell an audience's support, and this revival of Bryant's 2017 Hayes Theatre production already deserved all it received.

If we judge musicals for sheer cleverness and invention, Assassins' only rival is another Stephen Sondheim work: Sunday in the Park with George.

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But where George ultimately made you feel better about the world, Assassins, despite being wildly funny, remains deeply troubling.

Americans don't just like guns, they like shooting people with them, including having an apparent 150-year open season on presidents.

When this show first opened off Broadway it was widely deemed to be inciting assassination, rather than dissecting the American Dream with black humour – but then Sondheim has often been somewhat ahead of this compatriots in matters of irony.

Perhaps to emphasise the irony and minimise the menace, Bryant's production uses cartoonish toy guns (until Oswald shoots Kennedy).

The daring lies not just in the subject matter of nine would-be or successful assassins, but in how their stories are told: via an amusement park (in which Alicia Clements' wonder-world set includes a sign shouting "Jesus Saves"), with the chronology as scrambled as the killers' minds.

Both John Weidman's​ book and Sondheim's lyrics are lean and sinewy, while the music carries echoes of Stephen Foster and John Philip Sousa, although somewhere between the arrangements (Andrew Worboys​) and mixing, the quartet's keyboard often swamped the vital banjo and guitar.

Bryant and cast succeed in briskly delineating the nine malefactors. Jason Winston (Leon Czolgosz​) and Maxwell Simon (Oswald) excel, Kate Cole is a hilarious Sarah Jane Moore, and Connor Crawford, Hannah Frederickson​, Anthony Gooley​, Luigi Lucente​, Rob McDougall and Madeleine Jones are all to be commended.

Campbell delivers his finest-ever work as Booth, and Fox, beyond his charismatic singing and acting, was busily realising Andrew Hallsworth's​ witty choreography when he fell. We wish him a speedy recovery.

John Shand

John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award

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