Assassins Brings to Life That American Archetype: The Angry Loner With a Gun

Fly North Theatricals' new production remembers when presidents were the target

click to enlarge Stephen Henley portrays the Balladeer and John Wilkes Booth, the latter as a suggestible, depressed man at the end of his rope. - JOHN GRAMLICH
Stephen Henley portrays the Balladeer and John Wilkes Booth, the latter as a suggestible, depressed man at the end of his rope.

Remember the good old days in America? Remember how things used to be, back when a distraught young person desperately seeking attention had no choice but to kill the president? Today they take aim at kindergartners. Ah, those days of yore!

The new production of Assassins from Fly North Theatricals, which premiered last Friday at .ZACK, takes us back to the more innocent era, the age of presidential assassinations. Before John Hinckley nearly murdered Ronald Reagan (and paralyzed his press secretary) with a mere .22, presidents occasionally walked among us. Sometimes, ordinary citizens targeted them with their best shot. Occasionally, they even succeeded.

Fly North’s vibrant production offers its own take on the 2004 Broadway show, which probes the psyches of nine real-life presidential assassins, and would-be assassins, in darkly comic ways. Director Bradley Rohlf stages the action not at a carnival (as it was originally staged Off Broadway) but at a political convention. Instead of a carnival barker as narrator, here we get a toothy TV news reporter (the enormously talented Eileen Engel, who also designed the costumes). Immersive elements like badges, security wands and even “John Wilkes’ booth” (get it?) prime the audience for a scene ripped from the headlines.

But while the staging is clever, the show doesn’t fully deliver on that promise — which is appalling evidence of how much has changed since Assassins first shocked and appalled Off Broadway audiences in 1990. Today, your average disaffected loner is more likely to be armed with an assault rifle, ready to take down two dozen of his fellow Americans. How else to get his own Wikipedia page? In 2022, fantasizing about killing the president seems downright quaint.

That makes “Gun Song/The Ballad of Czolgosz” the show’s most poignant moment. With gun violence reaching into supermarkets and movie theaters, it’s deeply unsettling to listen to a gorgeous song … about how violence cures existential impotence. “And all you have to do/Is move your little finger/Move your little finger/And you can change the world,” one assassin offers seductively. “Why should you be blue/When you’ve your little finger?” What if you could move your little finger and take down a classroom? At that point, who wouldn’t listen to you? Who wouldn’t care?

From that perspective, the penultimate “Something Just Broke” feels like hopeless boomer nostalgia. The song abruptly halts the black comedy to offer a sincere elegy for America’s innocence, shattered by Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun. But that’s now ancient history, and history blinded by rank privilege at that. Something just broke? These days, days when we’ve traced the nation’s violent original sin back to 1619, that feels naive.

The somber song still offers a jolt, and that’s a tribute to the skillful young cast, which mostly rises to the challenge of Stephen Sondheim’s famously difficult — and glorious — score. Starring as John Wilkes Booth, Jordan Wolk has a face that seems right out of the 19th century and a properly theatrical manner. He’s the devil on the shoulder of Oswald (Stephen Henley, whose beautiful vocals buoy the production). As Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, respectively, Kimmie Kid and Avery Lux provide hilarious comic relief. Both are terrific.

In some ways, it feels like the attention paid to the music has left the staging as an afterthought. Too often, the actors stand not on, but in front of, the stage, which makes for difficult sightlines from .ZACK’s flat floor. And while the idea of showing Wikipedia pages — and even a short TikTok video — on the screen that dominates the backdrop is clever, it doesn’t feel fully worked through. Too often, the text distracts instead of illuminating. And audio problems were a constant low-level aggravation on opening night; the acoustics at .ZACK aren’t great, and the engineering failed to solve them.

Even so, this is a production worth seeing, and not just for those wondrous tunes — and a rare chance to see the once-controversial Assassins in flyover country. Rather than imitate the Broadway staging, Fly North blazes its own trail. The three-year-old company is doing some of the most exciting and thought-provoking work in St. Louis today. Its ambition should be applauded.

And the fact that Assassins feels like the product of a more innocent time is less a reason to discount this musical and more a clarion call to engage with it. Too many have moved their little fingers — depressed kids, disgruntled coworkers, angry white supremacists. Now they’re armed with weapons far deadlier than anything available to the show’s panoply of assassins.

The brokenness only continues. Now our presidents are properly protected, and it’s we who stand there, defenseless — a row of interchangeable, and disposable, sitting ducks.

Assassins is presented by Fly North Theatricals through Saturday, July 23. Music by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Bradley Rohlf, with music direction by Colin Healy. Tickets $20.

About The Author

Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske is the executive editor of the RFT and its sister papers. She is the former host of St. Louis on the Air and continues to host its Legal Roundtable, as well participating as an occasional panelist on Nine PBS' Donnybrook. She lives in St. Louis.
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