Trying to figure out what went astray with Camarillo Skyway Playhouse’s production of Assassins, Sondheim’s musical about nine successful and would-be presidential killers, is like trying to detect at exactly which point the protagonists lost their respective marbles.


Sondheim’s musical closed quietly off-Broadway in 1991 after only a 2-month run. A 2004 revival starring Neil Patrick Harris as Lee Harvey Oswald took five Tony awards, including best revival of a musical. That show’s success seems like proof there can be a right time to joke about presidential mortality, and with an election looming this should be it. But despite Brian Robert Harris’ skilled direction, talented cast and impressive set and costumes, the result feels strangely lifeless. 


The kooky musical tracks the attempts made against presidential lives from 1865 through 1980. Well-knowns like Oswald and John Wilkes Booth appear, as well as more recent (and unsuccessful) assailants such as Samuel Byck (Nixon), Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Ford) and John Hinckley (Reagan). Then there’s Giuseppe Zangara (FDR), Charles Guiteau (who killed Garfield) and Leon Czolgosz (who killed McKinley). Huh?


Any company tackling this show fights against the average audience’s ignorance. History buffs aside, who remembers President McKinley, let alone Czolgosz? In order to corral all these criminals across time and space, Sondheim sticks them in a limbo where they squabble and recount their stories. This gives the play thematic unity but not much of a driving plot. His melodies (he did both music and lyrics for this show) also aren’t particularly tuneful, challenging actors not to oversing and to enunciate lyrics that include surprising phrasing like “blood in the clover.”


Several actors give fine performances in spite of these structural problems, but the show never quite manages to escape the feel of a very good college production — an inadvertent result of its young casting. Alex Choate makes a strong mustachioed Booth, who, after his opening death scene, flits in and out like a bad angel, whispering in susceptible ears. Evan Boelsen earns chuckles as the vainglorious Guiteau. Jim Seerden as Byck commands the stage throughout two rambling monologues, and comes off as the only (albeit dangerously unbalanced) grown-up onstage. Randi Saxer as bloodthirsty sexpot “Squeaky” gets the coolest costumes and most interesting backstory as a member of the Manson Family, but her compelling performance drifts away when she isn’t staring out from under her fringed bangs and intoning, “Charlie.


Perhaps the least successful character is the Balladeer (Kellie Holm), who competes with Booth as connective tissue. In the Broadway revival this part was doubled with Oswald, which adds a nice dramatic irony in the final scene. (The Balladeer initially reproaches Booth for his misguided thinking; by curtain fall, he would be pulling the trigger himself.) Holm plays the role like a bright-eyed high school reporter, a modern, jarring note even in this time-traveling production.


The biggest acting prize goes to Julie Bermel. Her outstanding comic performance as Sara Jane Moore, the harebrained housewife who shot at Ford 17 days after Fromme, steals every one of her scenes. But the people’s choice award clearly lands with pint-sized Wesley Umali. As Moore’s son, he generated some of the show’s most enthusiastic applause with a tantrum that leaves Fromme declaring, “Your child is an asshole.”


Skyway has been tackling a number of ambitious projects in recent months. It’s an effort that, like democracy, deserves praise — even when it falls short.


Assassins, through Nov. 4 at Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, 330 Skyway Drive, 388-5716,