Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Fly North Theatricals

Review by Richard T. Green

Jordan Wolk, Eli Borwick, Kimmie Kidd-Booker,
and Bradford Rolen

Photo by John Gramlich
I think my favorite non-curse word may be "reciprocal." Which comes in handy in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's always-astonishing musical Assassins. It's now on stage in a glowing revival by the newer Fly North Theatricals company at the .ZACK Theatre in St. Louis. The original Off-Broadway production bombed in 1990, running just 73 performances. But it won big at the Tonys in a revival on Broadway in 2004. Timeless and ahead of its time: even this musical had to start out in shame, on its own strange path to immortality: like most of its tormented anti-heroes on stage.

But hardly anybody can get through life without some reciprocal person to help them complete the journey and put their lives into perspective. Usually it's a spouse, or other life-affirming partner or parent. And this applies to United States presidents, even when they meet a violent and untimely end. Ambitious politicians become world-renowned targets, once they're moving into the White House. But it seems like we don't get a vivid understanding of who they are, in a graffito of history, until they're captured in the gunsight of some unknown killer, who's been reciprocally grinding away in his or her own miserable obscurity–and because, like it or not, an assassin may complete the arc of history: for Lincoln, or Kennedy, or the rest.

The whole show is 1) madly, toweringly ironic; and 2) intermittently dark and sad, thanks here to a great cast and to director Bradley Rohlf, who is also managing director of the troupe. It's that impossible emotional balancing act we've come to associate with Mr. Sondheim. The outstanding Jordan Wolk gloriously fills the stage as John Wilkes Booth, and the fabulous Sarah Lantsberger unexpectedly plays a gender-flipped Sam Byck, the guy who wanted to crash a jumbo jet into the White House, with Richard Nixon as his target.

This time, I got to use some of my own favorite curse words as I unwisely sat in a middle row, because the volume of the excellent backstage orchestra overwhelms roughly a quarter of the lyrics sung by the actors, in spite of the performers' face mics. I'd seen the play twice before, so I rarely felt lost. But Assassins' insanity plays differently each time, and with performers of this quality, you actually want to hear every word. Also, the sight lines are not that great toward the back, with no audience risers. So, between that and sound mixing, sit up close!

More predictably, you're likely to curse when the excellent Stephen Henley (as the Balladeer) is horrified to be swept into the play's desperate, climactic moment in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. All the other past and future assassins are urging him on in his abject failure, to keep their spirit alive in him. And each of those ghost-like characters' faces blazes with a strange magnificence, like the portraits on our money, momentarily immune to their role as killers.

The production begins like a political convention, with lots of tongue-in-cheek scheduling announcements on a huge projection screen, which will later show a hangman's noose and other relevant images. But at the outset, scintillating Eileen Engel (as the Proprietor) adds a shuddering new chill, passing out children's brightly colored toy guns to each of the future killers. And yet, one of the show's five or six good laughs comes when Gerald Ford (Jaymeson Hintz) bumbles his way out of a clumsy assassination attempt, where the very funny Kimmie Kidd-Booker (as Sara Jane Moore) and I'm-not-in-a-cult/you're-in-a-cult Avery Lux (as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme) are each reduced to throwing bullets at him, by hand.

Mr. Hintz is unexpectedly touching as John Hinckley, Jr., singing a love ballad, and Ms. Lantsberger reappears to portray labor leader Emma Goldman in scenes with the formidable Eli Borwick as the righteous, embittered Leon Czolgosz. It is fair to say that Mr. Czolgosz is now better known (as a result of this musical) than the 25th president whom he killed. Most theater people, at least, know Mr. Czolgosz toiled in a horrible job at a glass bottle factory, scorched by the working man's struggle. But did you know that his victim, William McKinley, was army pals with Rutherford B. Hayes?

Dreams are caught in a desperate tug-of-war with nightmares. But it's funny, I swear. Bradford Rolen is delightfully mad as Charles Guiteau (Garfield, 1881), and Ryan Townsend is subtly iconic as Giuseppe Zangara (who tried to assassinate president-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, but instead killed Chicago's Mayor Anton Cermak). Mr. Townsend is hunched in a perpetual state of gut-wrenching agony, though we also get to hear his crystal-clear chorus voice near the end. Talented sixth-grader Layla Mason rounds out the cast with a justifiably confident turn as Sara Jane Moore's on-stage son, Billy.

Fly North Theatricals' Assassins runs through July 23, 2022, at the .ZACK Theatre, 3224 Locust Ave., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information please visit

The Proprietor: Eileen Engel
The Balladeer: Stephen Henley
John Wilkes Booth: Jordan Wolk
Charles Guiteau: Bradford Rolen
Leon Czolgosz: Eli Borwick
Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme: Avery Lux
Sara Jane Moore: Kimmie Kidd-Booker
Giuseppe Zangara: Ryan Townsend
John Hinckley Jr.: Jaymeson Hintz
Sam Byck/Emma Goldman: Sarah Lantsberger
Billy: Layla Mason

Conductor/Music Director: Colin Healy
Keyboard 1/Associate Conductor: Ryan Hinman
Keyboard 2: Nikki Evans
Guitar: Adam Lugo
Bass: Teddy Luecke
Percussion: Des Jones
Reeds: Lucielle Mankovich
Reeds: Linda Branham Rice
Horn: John Gerdes
Trumpet: Ron Foster
Trumpet: Joe Akers
Trombone: Adam Levin

Production Staff:
Director, Projection Design: Bradley Rohlf
Assistant Director, Production Manager: Brian McKinley
Music Director, Media Design, SFX Design: Colin Healy
Stage Manager, Light Board Operator: Rachel Downing
Costume Design: Eileen Engel
Lighting Design: Tony Anselmo
House Manager: Trey Marlette
Box Office, Front-of-House Manager: Angela Brandow