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Sondheim Marks Election With Musical on Assassins

San Diego State couldn’t have timed it better. Just 10 days after the Nov. 3 elections, the drama department will present the Southern California premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s latest, “Assassins"--a musical about presidential killers or would-be killers. The show will run from Nov. 13-21 as part of its season at the Don Powell Theatre.

“Assassins,” Sondheim’s latest, with a book by John Weidman (his “Pacific Overtures” collaborator), managed to shock and titillate New York when it played to sold-out audiences at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons during 1990-1991.

This one-act musical features a chorus line of such real-life lowlifes as John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln; Charles Guiteau, who killed James Garfield; Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley; Giuseppe Zangara, who tried to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt; Samuel Byck, who tried to kill Richard M. Nixon; Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who shot at Gerald Ford; and John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan.

A fascination with assassins is not unique to Sondheim. Shakespeare got mileage on this subject, too: consider “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth.” But Sondheim has a very American take on it. His assassins are have-nots trying to achieve an inversion of the American Dream. They knew they would never grow up to be president, but they figured they could reserve a place in the history books by growing up to shoot a president. Paula Kalustian, who runs the MFA program in musical theater at SDSU, will direct the show, while Terry O’Donnell, a professor of music and dramatic arts, will be musical director.

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Kalustian, who directed the Theatre in Old Town’s current hit, “Beehive,” considers herself a Sondheim specialist: She has directed all of Sondheim’s shows except “Pacific Overtures” and “Merrily We Roll Along.”

“The idea that the assassin becomes even more famous than the victim is an intriguing idea,” Kalustian said. “It’s a tender subject--the kind of history we don’t want to look at. But I think I can bring it to light as a panorama documentary.”

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Alan Young, the man who talked to a horse on the ‘60s television series “Mr. Ed,” thinks his upcoming stint as Jimmy Smith, the wealthy Bible publisher in Starlight Musical Theatre’s “No, No, Nanette,” has something in common with his “Mr. Ed” role.

“He reminds me of Edward Everett Horton,” Young said of Nanette’s uncle, a platonic sucker with an embarrassing weakness for sharing his wealth with gold diggers. As for Horton: “He was in a different world and listened to a different drummer. I loved him and I studied him.”

Listening to a different drummer can also describe a man who listens to a horse, he said with a laugh. “I like these roles.”

“No, No, Nanette” opens tonight at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park.

Young doesn’t want to give away all of Mr. Ed’s talking secrets. He still hopes there will be a Mr. Ed II one day. Even though the original Mr. Ed is dead--as is his trainer, Lester Hilton, and his “voice,” Allan Rocky Lane.

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But Young will tell this much:

They shot the show in the morning because the horse was “full of pep” then. The trainer taught the horse to curl his lip and Lane coordinated his words with the movement of the horse’s mouth. Hilton crouched under the horse during shooting, and, when Mr. Ed was supposed to stop “talking,” Hilton touched his front forelegs with a riding crop.

“The first year was difficult to get him to talk,” Young recalled. “But later, we had difficulty stopping him. I was riding him once and Lester burst out laughing. ‘Every time you stop talking, he talks!’ ”

Mr. Ed’s real name was Bamboo Harvester--at least until he was bought for the series. Young’s own real name was Angus--he was born on the border of England and Scotland--and he can still summon up the old Scottish inflections of his father. That comes in mighty handy when he performs the voice of Scrooge McDuck on the cartoon series “Duck Tales.”

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Young got his start in show business at 13 when his family was living in Vancouver, Canada. He was poor and when he heard the Scottish society there wanted someone to be funny for $2 or a meal, he volunteered.

“I’d already eaten so I did an impersonation of some British comedians for $2.”

Later, Young did his own radio show, made a favorable impression when called to New York as a summer replacement for Eddie Cantor, and did his own TV show, “The Alan Young Show” in 1950, before landing “Mr. Ed.”

Actually, he resisted “Mr. Ed” for years. When the idea first came up, he was starring in such films as “Tom Thumb” and “The Time Machine.”

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“It was proposed to me about eight years before I did it. I was then a stand-up comedian, and I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to anyone who doesn’t clean up after himself.’ But, eight years later, I was out of work and I was ready to talk to anyone.”

PROGRAM NOTES: Cheap seats. It’s just $5 for tickets in sections C and D (the back sections) for the June 23 and 24 performances of “No, No, Nanette” at Starlight Musical Theatre’s Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park. There will be a $5 discount on seats in all sections tonight through Sunday. Call 544-7800. . . .

It’s also just $5 for the San Diego Theatre League’s Sneak Preview of “Memory Tricks,” Marga Gomez’s one-woman show at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre July 20 at 8 p.m. Tickets are at the Times Arts Tix booth in Horton Plaza. Call 238-0700. . . .

And the La Jolla Playhouse still has pay-what-you-can tickets available at the box office for the Saturday matinee of “Le Petomane” at the Mandell Weiss Forum. . . .

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Tina Landau will direct the West Coast premiere of “Marisol” at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum from Sept. 16-Oct. 14.

CRITIC’S CHOICE: TWO PLAYS OFFER SOCIAL COMMENTARY

Catch them before they close: “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting” and “A . . . My Name Is Still Alice,” two new plays closing at the Old Globe Theatre on Sunday. Both offer valuable insights into contemporary life.

“Mr. Rickey” steps back to 1947, when Jackie Robinson crossed baseball’s color line, showing a preview of today’s racial conflicts. “A . . . My Name Is Still Alice” shows life from the woman’s perspective, skewering everything from Dan Quayle to the Supreme Court to weight loss programs to Picasso’s take on women with humor and panache.

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Performances are 8 p.m. through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2. “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting” is at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage and “A . . . My Name Is Still Alice” is at the Old Globe Theatre, both in Balboa Park, 239-2255.


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