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Anti-Musical Killer Inside Pulls No Punches About Life in Prison

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Lots of folks hate musicals. They can't accept the logic of people breaking into song in a way that would only get stares if done on the street. They don't like the persistently perky stories or the material seemingly drawn from every hit movie of the past 30 years.

It's not hard to refute those arguments. If you can accept a wise-cracking dude in high-tech armor laying waste to New York City, it's not much of a stretch to watch Maria unleashing "Tonight" in West Side Story. Plenty of musicals deal with heavy topics and find startling new layers in old works.

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Still, I sympathize with the haters. It's taken me decades to overcome my initial distrust. Sandbox Theatre's Killer Inside is for those of us with lingering (or strong) doubts.

This is an anti-musical, with a relentlessly grim topic and songs that cross between folk and punk without spending too much time at the overtly tuneful. It presents intense, even startling moments. Unfortunately, it does not entirely hold together as a show.

The setting: a prison in Pittsville. We discover its history from the facility itself (in a personification) and the men and women who find themselves inside.

The work doesn't offer any redemption — Shawshank or otherwise — for the incarcerated, just endless days of solitary confinement, then walks to the electric chair.

The bad guys aren't sugarcoated. These are stone-cold killers who slaughtered dozens of people for love, by accident, or because they were just plain mean.

The prison evolves with our changing judicial mores. The first block built — with solitary cells, a rooftop window, and a copy of the Bible — is designed to give the prisoners hope of a better life through faith. But even that tiny light disappears in the building of subsequent blocks, as it becomes a home of vengeance and then just another way to make money.

Along the way, traditional musical forms are gleefully subverted. Derek Meyer plays a bad-seed murderer who ends up in the electric chair. He tap dances his way through the story, but there's no percussive, clanking joy. His song builds and builds the tension, with the only release coming when he finally gets to the chair.

Later, Sam Landman takes on the persona of the prison during its dark corporate days. This comes out as a high-energy punk number, where the fierce actor sounds like a cross between Nick Cave and the Cramps' Lux Interior performing in a seedy nightclub.

The most harrowing moment comes from Theo Langason, who plays a young man who went all Lizzy Borden on his adoptive parents. He unleashes a song about his "Mother" that descends into fits of primal screaming.

All of this makes for hard viewing, as if director Heather Stone was unable to wrangle the different strands together. Killer Inside is packed with ideas, but by the end they feel like a string of incidents, rather than a connected whole.

Some are intense enough to leave burn marks. Others make you want to check your watch. You won't leave the theater humming any of the songs, but moments will stick with you like probation.

IF YOU GO:

Killer Inside Red Eye Theater 8 p.m. Thursday through Monday Through November 22 15 W. 14th St. Minneapolis; 612-870-0309 $20; Monday shows are pay-as-able