5497626_origStageWorks Toronto is an incredibly ambitious company, especially when you consider that they’re really a community theatre organization (mixing new theatre grads with part-time performers, I’m pretty sure all un-paid). Year after year they choose an interesting, contemporary and thematically challenging musical and mount a full-scale production, never shying away from a hard vocal score. Choosing Assassins for their 2014 effort meant shedding their usual large chorus and attempting one of the toughest tasks facing any community director- finding a cast of strong men (the ratio of great triple threats is usually about 15 women for every decent guy). That shift in cast makeup actually proved to be the key in making Assassins the company’s best show yet.

Director Lorraine Green-Kimsa is still leaning on blackout-set-changes (do we have to have this fight every time, Lorraine?) but her work with co-director Michael Yaneff is otherwise really great this year. Collaborating with set designer Michelle Tracey, Green-Kimsa and Yaneff use the space to fantastic effect by keeping their off-stage assassins permanently on stage, hidden in the shadows (ooh, metaphor!). The theme of the American Dream that looms over Assassins is represented by red, white and blue banners and balloons that give the fairground set a campaign stop feeling (the prize wheel of potential victims is also inspired, though it made me wish someone could pull off Assassins 52 Pick Upstyle with the scene order determined by the wheel). The perfect patriotism of the set is gradually destroyed by The Proprietor as the action unfolds, popping balloons to create the sound of gunshots, which not only just plain sounds better than recorded effects but is also such a thematic win.

The band sounds a little shaky but this is by far the best cast of voices StageWorks has ever had, led by Hugh Ritchie’s charming turn as The Balladeer. Russ Underdown’s performance as the stagey Charles Guiteau could be grating- though I felt it was definitely more the fault of the character than the performer- and I would have liked more from Mladen Obradović as would-be FDR assassin Giuseppe Zangara but otherwise the cast delivers spot-on dramatic performances to match their vocals. Will van der Zyl has never been much of a singer but he’s smartly cast as Sam Byck, who doesn’t sing much but does deliver the show’s standout monologue. I also loved Mike Buchanan as Reagan’s awkward, lovelorn attempted murderer and Christie Stewart stood out in her second musical of the month as unhinged Charlie Manson acolyte Lynette Fromme. But it was last year’s standout Luke Witt who delivered my favourite performance of the incredibly strong group, lording magnetically over the action as the ominous Proprietor, gleefully popping balloons and rooting for more destruction.

Assassins has more real characters demanding serious acting and vocal chops than any of StageWorks’ previous efforts, but somehow the company managed to assemble the right personnel to pull it off. There are no stray chorus members to pull the average down and everyone here gets a chance to show off what they do best, whether it’s strong bass harmonies (Dylan Brenton), winking charm (Ritchie) or intense comi-tragedy (van der Zyl). Even the best voices falter here and there and the band is not up to standard but StageWorks has definitely raised the bar this year, as they seem to be determined to do with every new show.