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Wartime: when all the 'Assassins' come out

The leading contender for the Tony Award for best musical revival, Assassins, takes place on a set whose scaffolding suggests both a wooden roller coaster and a gallows.

Designer Robert Brill's dual imagery is an ideal metaphor for Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's disquieting look at nine killers or would-be killers of American presidents. Toss in the fact that director Joe Mantello's production is staged in a cabaret, and it's impossible to escape the chilling notion of assassination as entertainment -- a notion that's not so farfetched in a culture where criminals can become celebrities.

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The set is just one indication that this is a dream revival of a musical about some of America's worst nightmares. The performances are also eerily unnerving. Michael Cerveris' dapper, assured John Wilkes Booth becomes a role model and inspiration for his successors. And Denis O'Hare, as President Garfield's killer, does a jaunty cakewalk on the way to the noose.

Most haunting of all is the double-casting of Neil Patrick Harris. In the role of Balladeer, Harris serves as a guide into the assassins' disturbing world. But the subject proves contagious when he reappears as Lee Harvey Oswald, the killer the others turn to in hopes that his act will give their lives meaning.

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Sondheim's score has only nine songs, but their styles -- ranging from country and folk to hymn and anthem -- come together to form an American musical tapestry that is all too recognizable.

When Assassins made its debut in 1991, the country was at war. The current revival was slated to open in 2001, then was postponed after the World Trade Center bombings. With the country at war again, this cautionary show seems timelier than ever -- a reminder that democracy is a system that is not only precious, but vulnerable.


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