Musical brings American killers to life

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Jonathon Rush plays Charles Guiteau.

Theatre producers Kelly Roberts and Grant Pegg have been focusing on musicals that haven’t been seen before in Canberra, as will be the case in the new production called  “Assassins”, reports HELEN MUSA.

DIRECTOR and teacher Kelly Roberts is, by her own admission, “a musical theatre nerd” who has put her love of major Broadway and West End musicals into practice by performing in shows such as “Evita”, “Les Miserables” and “Into The Woods”.

Co-director Kelly Roberts… “I believe educated Canberrans will be interested in the subject matter.”

But these days, together with fellow nerd Grant Pegg, she’s been focusing on musicals that haven’t been seen before in Canberra, as will be the case in the new production for Everyman Theatre of “Assassins”.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, it’s based on the idea of a repetitive carnival game, “You Wanna kill a President?”, and is a sideshow alley portrayal of men and women who attempted, successfully and otherwise, to assassinate US presidents.

So the big successes include John Wilkes Booth (who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (James A Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley) and Lee Harvey Oswald (John F Kennedy), while the also-rans include Samuel Byck (Richard Nixon) and John Hinckley Jr. (Ronald Reagan).

“It’s very resonant for Americans at the moment because of the strong interest in politics and gun culture, but it’s not restricted to the US,” Roberts says.

“I believe educated Canberrans will be interested in the subject matter, too.”

She and Pegg have created an ensemble from Everyman’s versatile actors, dividing the acting load fairly evenly between Jim Adamik, Will Collett, Isaac Gordon, Joel Hutchings, Belle Nicol, Tracy Noble, Jonathan Rush, Jarrad West and Pippin Carroll.

While notionally headed up by the most famous assassin of all, actor Booth, who gunned down Lincoln, he’s not the lynchpin of the play.

That honour belongs to Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of JFK, who gives a kind of shape and conclusion to the plot of the play, even though the audience might not initially recognise where it’s going.

“The show is totally open to interpretation, which is really exciting and unusual for a musical,” Roberts says.

The script alludes to a shooting gallery so they’ve set it as a side show, part of a carnival, thus allowing the characters to become actors in an old-school travelling show, playing out their assassinations over and over again.

Tracy Noble in the role of Sarah Jane Moore.

“Grant and I have tried to get a sense of purgatory for these people, doomed to relive their actions,” she says.

“We’re drawn to smaller, more obscure shows that don’t necessarily have a broad musical theatre appeal, but we like the music in them.”

With that in mind, they’ve signed up Xander Unikowski as musical director to race through a range of American musical traditions from the 1860s to the 1980s – marches, spirituals, folk and rock.

Roberts comes from the home of musical theatre, the US. Raised in California and trained in drama and music at a school in Stockton, she came to Canberra 12 years ago to study drama and psychology at the ANU and simply never left.

Now a dance and drama teacher at Dickson College, which she describes as “a great school”, she finds time to stage shows such as “Spring Awakening” and “Heathers” with Pegg. 

Her busy schedule is somewhat compromised by the fact that she’s on maternity leave at the moment, but she’s wasting no time working out how to combine directing with being a mum.

Husband Chris Zuber, another Canberra drama teacher who recently played Macbeth at Rep, is designing the set for “Assassins” and that for Jordan Best’s production of “Belfast Girls”.

It’s a busy life.

“Assassins”, Belconnen Theatre, September 7-21. Book at 6275 2700 or canberraticketing.com.au

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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