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Ambitious 'Assassins' at Pico Playhouse can't overcome the show's peculiarities

Ambitious 'Assassins' at Pico Playhouse can't overcome the show's peculiarities
From left, Travis Rhett Wilson as John Wilkes Booth and Adam Hunter Howard as Leon Czolgosz in "Assassins" at the Pico Playhouse.

(Will Adashek)

First produced off-Broadway in 1990, Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," book by John Weidman, didn't receive a Broadway production for well over a decade. And although that Broadway run resulted in several Tony Awards, including one for revival of a musical, the show remains controversial -- beloved by some, reviled by many.

Anyone watching the current production at the Pico Playhouse will understand why.

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A surreal musical revue featuring assassins and assassin wannabes from the pages of history, the enterprise is buoyed by Sondheim's typically transcendent music. However, Weidman's randomly constructed book relegates "Assassins" to a baffling sidenote in Sondheim's otherwise illustrious canon.

Certainly, in their current undertaking, director Dan Fishbach and his mostly able cast tackle the vagaries of their material with professionalism and panache, but have arguably bitten off more than they can chew. Despite their best efforts, the self-consciously arbitrary plot remains glutinously indigestible.

Some in the ensemble seem a bit stiff, but there are many leading lights to be enjoyed here, particularly Travis Rhett Wilson's John Wilkes Booth -- the centering performance of the show.

Janna Cardia goes hilariously over the top as would-be Gerald Ford assassin Sara Jane Moore, while David Gallic is amusingly splenetic as obscure Samuel Byck, who tried to crash a plane into the Nixon White House.

Among the impressive technical elements, Philip G. Allen's sound stands out. Music director Anthony Lucca, who also helms the live quartet, ingeniously wrangles the cast's disparate voices and Sondheim's challenging score into a tuneful whole.

Indeed, all involved in this intrepid effort get an A for effort and extra credit for sheer guts. Sadly, they cannot ultimately outstrip the limitations of their material.

"Assassins," Pico Playhouse, 10508 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ages 15 and up. Ends Sept. 27. $30. www.assassinsmusicalLA.com. Running time: 2 hours.

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