By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - A hush comes over the audience when one of the actors slowly revolves full circle while aiming a pistol at spectators in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical "Assassins" at an intimate London theater-in-the-round.
The gunman is out to kill an American president. The pistol is fake, but looks real.
This dark musical by the creator of "Sweeney Todd", "Into the Woods" and "Sunday in the Park with George" seems to live under a star of unintentional relevance to current events.
A revival originally scheduled for 2001 in New York was postponed after the Sept. 11 airliner attacks. One of the "assassins" in the musical is the late Samuel Byck, who plotted to fly a hijacked plane into the White House to kill Richard Nixon.
This latest revival hits home in part because of the seemingly endless stream of gun violence news from the United States, most recently the police killings of unarmed black men.
Some of the assassins or would-be killers are shown as ineffectual or scatterbrained, like Sara Jane Moore (played by Catherine Tate), who tried to kill Gerald Ford.
John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin, is played by Aaron Tveit as a sinister godfather and inspiration to succeeding generations of president-killers.
But all of the assassins are armed and when they point their weapons at the spectators, there is an urge to duck under the bench seats.
That would be a mistake because this is one of Sondheim's oddest and darkest works. It is a broad indictment of society, particularly America, as a place where success is everything but if you're a failure you can eternally link yourself to the pinnacle of American achievement by killing a president.
"Everybody's got the right to their dreams," the assassins sing, and that can be at the expense of someone else's life.
The gritty production at the Menier Chocolate Factory theater is directed by Jamie Lloyd on a set that looks like a wrecked fun fair, with a giant overturned clown's head at one side, a clapped-out bumper car at the other and carnival lights overhead.
There is no real suspense. With a little knowledge of American history, we know what happens in every case: Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, all assassinated.
The guns in "Assassins" aren't loaded but the show certainly is, with dark and savage thoughts about power and society. Backed up with Sondheim songs, Lloyd's clever direction and a top-notch cast, it hits the bullseye.
(This story corrects, in the online version, the name Beck in the fourth paragraph to Byck)
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)