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Executioners' Songs 

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ver the past 15 years, I've seen most of the shows presented in the Civic's Studio Theater. Assassins is better than nearly all of them -- it's certainly among the three or four best over that span. If you want to see a show that will entertain and enthrall you -- that will have you squirming in self-recognition while at the same time showcasing some of this area's best musical theater talent -- then you've got until Feb. 18 to snatch up one of the Firth J. Chew's reconfigured 90 (or so) seats.





Stephen Sondheim's musical examination of nine murderers (some of them wanna-bes) doesn't glamorize the fruitcakes and nut jobs who've sought to scratch their own particular itches by exploding bullets into presidential brain matter. But it doesn't merely aim at understanding them or extending compassion to them, either. Instead, Sondheim and John Weidman (who wrote the musical's book) are after an indictment of both the killers and the regular-Joe theatergoers in their audience.





Americans don't want just to pursue happiness; they seem to think they've got a God-given right to be on American Idol -- the right to be... famous, notorious, whatever. (Just as long as people have heard your name.) And if you don't achieve your American Dream, then you have the right to take out your frustrations on something really, really big.


Something like murdering a president.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & gain and again, Sondheim and director/choreographer Nickerson create surprising effects, interesting tableaux, startling juxtapositions. After a lineup of assassins stretching 120 years across American history steps right up into our faces, the footlights distort their fiendish grins from below. A couple of locally known actors, meanwhile -- Abbey Crawford as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and David Gigler as John Hinckley -- submerge themselves so well into their roles that at first they're almost unrecognizable. I'd forgotten the poignancy of putting this unlikely (and whacked-out, violent) couple together in, of all things, a love duet called "Unworthy of Your Love" -- because that's exactly how Squeaky worshipped Charlie Manson and Hinckley worshipped Jodie Foster. The effect is heart-rending and chilling all at once, and it goes to the core of American despair: I want the Dream; I see others achieving the Dream; I'll take a quick and violent path straight toward the Dream. Won't that make things better?





Crawford's scene with Marianne McLaughlin as Sara Jane Moore -- the hippie and the housewife, both of whom tried to kill Gerald R. Ford in 1975 -- was even funnier than it was on Broadway, for two reasons: Crawford plays Squeaky less as a freak than as a human being, and McLaughlin's ability to act befuddled when she mishandles a handgun or gets a little too high.





Weidman writes a fantasy scene for the finale in which the original presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Patrick McHenry-Kroetch) tempts a suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald (George Green) into pulling the trigger on JFK. Like a spider toying with a fly, McHenry-Kroetch snares Green in his web; the physical difference in height plays an effective role here, with McHenry-Kroetch looming over his prey. Booth even anachronistically quotes Death of a Salesman to the little man: Attention must be paid, he says, to those who feel disenfranchised, powerless. Green plays Oswald more for insecurity and fear than as any kind of stone-cold killer, but some great special effects close the scene with a wallop.





Jan Wanless' Victorian cravat-and-cutaway looked especially good on Booth; her rust-colored bowler and carnival-barker attire for Thomas Heppler's Proprietor and red hippie dress for Squeaky-Crawford were also quite effective. Gary Laing directs an onstage musical combo through the intricacies of Sondheim's songs. David Baker's set design reconfigures the Studio Theater, then adds the pennants and flashing lights of a tawdry carnival.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s Nickerson and his cast move toward state and regional competitions among community theaters, naturally there are weaknesses that could use improvement. (Cutting 50 minutes out of this show to edit it down to its one-hour-long fighting weight, however, won't be easy: It's a relentless, intermission-less, in-your-face show.)





A couple of performances felt restrained, hesitant, vocally weaker. Sondheim places excessive demands for rapid-fire speed-singing on Andrew Ware-Lewis' Balladeer; slower tempos and a real emphasis on articulation and volume would help. But Ware-Lewis looms throughout like a haunting sideline presence.





Yet if I can't quite deliver a complete rave on Nickerson's production of Assassins, this is still a very, very good show. The Civic's Assassins is one of those exceptional shows that should make anyone who's involved in local theater proud to be part of such a creative and talented community.


Punch your ticket for Assassins, because attention should indeed be paid.

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