The cast of "Assassins," on stage at the Costa Mesa Playhouse. (Mike Brown / February 6, 2014)

En route to becoming America's preeminent Broadway composer-lyricist, Stephen Sondheim took a few darkly hued detours into the lives of murderously deranged historical characters, probably his best known being "Sweeney Todd."

An even more arresting, though rarely produced, Sondheim musical is "Assassins," which follows the lives of several nut cases who killed, or attempted to kill, the president of the United States. There is, it appears, quite an ignoble fraternity.

The Costa Mesa Playhouse is mounting a chilling but highly entertaining revival of Sondheim's imaginative 1990 epic, which spotlights not only such household names as John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and John Hinckley Jr., but several other killers or would-be killers with whom audience members may not be familiar.

It's a matter of historical fact that James Garfield and William McKinley were assassinated, but few playgoers could identify their slayers as Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz. Similarly, Giuseppe Zangara, who took a shot at FDR, and Samuel Byck — killed trying to force his way onto a plane, intending to crash it into Richard Nixon's White House — are included in Sondheim's (and book author John Weidman's) rogues' gallery.

They're all here in this powerful production directed by David A. Blair (who also performs as Zangara) and musically staged by Stephen Hulsey with a two-person orchestra (Taylor Stephenson on piano and percussionist Carlo Virtucio). The instrumentation is splendid, but if you're spooked by gunfire, better bring some cotton for your ears.

Blair has elicited some riveting performances from his murderously effective cast, the most impressive being that of William Shaffner, who opens (and closes) the proceedings as Booth, the South-allied actor who ruined Lincoln's visit to the theater. Shaffner's Booth rages mightily against Lincoln's "traitorous" actions, then appears, along with the other assassins, in spirit to Oswald (Jason Holland), to eloquently convince him to shoot John F. Kennedy and join the exclusive club.

For sheer vocal power and disturbing rage, Philip Falcone as Byck, garbed in what appears to be a Santa Claus suit, takes the prize. Falcone is chilling as he tapes growling, profanity-laced messages to Nixon and composer Leonard Bernstein protesting his lot in life.

Marc Montminy brings a "Chicago"-like, showbiz feel to the production as Guiteau, who joyfully sings "The Ballad of Guiteau" (a.k.a. "I'm Going to the Lordy") on his way to the gallows. Blair struggles with English as the Italian who nearly changed the course of history with his designs on Roosevelt.

Some welcome comic relief is furnished by Cathy Petz as a klutzy Sara Jane Moore, who, with Samantha Blair's Fromme, plotted against Gerald Ford (here together, though in actuality, separately). Blair also joins Coleman Summers as Hinckley in a heartfelt duet ("Unworthy of Your Love") beatifying the objects of their passion, Charles Manson and Jodie Foster, respectively.

Louis B. Jack, with one eye patched, eerily portrays a gun salesman and, later, a judge. Holland performs as a musical narrator (billed as the balladeer) before assuming the character of Oswald who, in this concept, has to be convinced to take aim at JFK.

The idea of viewing presidential assassinations (and near-murders) through the eyes of the perpetrators may border on the preposterous, but the music of Sondheim and the libretto of Weidman are strong conspiratorial elements. It's an evening laced with hilarity and horror, often simultaneously, at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Assassins"

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through March 9

Cost: $16 to $18

Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com