Dancing Boys and a Bloodthirsty Plant Sidle Up to Shakespeare

Theater

STRATFORD, Ontario — The last time I saw Dan Chameroy onstage, he was wearing fishnet stockings, a backward bustier, a lacy boa and not much else. That was a year ago, when he played Frank N. Furter in the Stratford Festival’s hit production of “The Rocky Horror Show.”

This year I barely recognized him in two new Stratford roles: Jackie Elliot, the coal miner father of the title character in “Billy Elliot,” and Orin Scrivello, the sadistic dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors.”

It may come as a surprise that Stratford produces musicals; it was founded as the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada in 1952 and still leans heavily bard-ward. In a recent weeklong visit, I saw “Othello,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the rarely performed “Henry VIII” and a new play, “Mother’s Daughter,” in part inspired by the stories of queens whom Shakespeare somehow neglected.

But with “The Beggars Opera” in 1958 and “The Pirates of Penzance” in 1960, the festival inaugurated a program of musical theater, usually with a distinctly classical or operetta tilt. Starting in the 1980s, shows from Broadway’s Golden Age joined the repertoire; now most seasons feature two ambitious musicals.

That makes sense: Musicals are the works that, in our time, most often approach the scale and complexity of the canonical histories and comedies. Songs are often like soliloquies and call on some of the same performance techniques. And Stratford, with its superb costume and wig departments, is especially well suited to the kinds of transformation this repertoire requires.

Which is why I didn’t recognize Mr. Chameroy. In miner’s drag and a thatchy hairpiece, he looked 25 years older as Jackie Elliot than he had as Frank N. Furter; the bravado and joy of that “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania” were replaced by Jackie’s sense of loss (his wife has died) and anger (his industry is dying). When his 11-year-old son, Billy (Nolen Dubuc), reveals a talent for ballet, a third element complicates the others: bewilderment.

I was moved by “Billy Elliot” on Broadway; there are certainly some things that the director Stephen Daldry was able to do in that production that Donna Feore, the director and choreographer of this one, cannot. On the festival’s deep-thrust stage, the aerial scene in which Billy is partnered by a future vision of himself comes off a bit flat. The social class satire of Billy’s audition for the Royal Ballet is way overplayed, as if trying to bank cheap laughs in a family show. Perhaps for the same reason, the treatment of Billy’s nascent sexuality, and especially that of his cross-dressing best friend, seems hasty and avoidant.

But in most other ways, Ms. Feore’s thrilling version finds new doors into the material and strides confidently through them. The political story is especially rich here, perhaps because the catastrophic job loss facing Easington in “Billy Elliot” as Margaret Thatcher privatizes the coal mines closely resembles what the city of Stratford faced in the early 1950s when the collapse of steam power destroyed its railroad industry. The festival was devised to promote economic recovery; out of hard times came theater.

Ms. Feore introduces this idea in a brilliant, low-tech gesture, having Billy “fly” about the stage the way all children do, running with his head forward and arms outstretched. The image is made larger than life when it is projected gloriously onto the set by another boy, playing with the light on a miner’s helmet.

In that moment, we see two of the show’s stories joined, and we also spy the origins of Billy’s self-expression through movement.

But another theme the Stratford production draws out, often in angry, bravura dancing, is how the heritage of toxic masculinity works against Billy — and everyone else. It robs boys, women and men alike of the means of expression, a calamity dramatized with great pathos in the otherwise jolly second-act opener set at the town Christmas pageant. When Jackie, drunk enough to sing one of Elton John and Lee Hall’s lovely faux-folk songs for the crowd, gets to the verse that begins, “Oh, once I loved a woman,” Mr. Chameroy stops dead. For what seems like an eternity, he cannot go on.

The opportunity not just to celebrate but also to reinvestigate classic musicals without shrinking them into dollhouse replicas is Ms. Feore’s calling card. “Billy Elliot” is full-size, yet different from the original. Likewise, last year, her version of “The Music Man” brought out the class disparities inherent in the story without skimping on its exhilarating portrait of American flimflam.

This season’s smaller musical, like “Rocky Horror” last year, may not benefit as much from rethinking; “Little Shop” is what it is. There’s not much you can add without hubris to the nearly perfect B-movie tale of a nebbishy florist’s assistant, Seymour Krelborn, who accidentally discovers a plant that grows gargantuan when fed human blood. Hoping to impress Audrey, the fellow worker he’s hopelessly in love with, Seymour names the plant Audrey II and tries to keep the blood supply going. But in the manner of such morality tales in any genre, his ambition leads to disaster.

Though this is all set to marvelously campy dialogue (by Howard Ashman) and a delicious pseudo-1950s score (by Mr. Ashman and Alan Menken), it’s not merely a spoof. Or at least — with a subplot about Audrey’s being viciously abused by her dentist boyfriend — it can’t be anymore. Ms. Feore delicately turns up the dial on that story, which Mr. Chameroy and Gabi Epstein (as Audrey) are able to sustain without losing laughs.

I began to discern in this “Little Shop” a thread I’d noticed in so many Stratford productions this season, which consider the root of evil (and centuries of drama) in men’s sexual paranoia. At first I thought I’d gone mad from too much theater. But no, it’s all there, and not even Seymour (André Morin) is innocent: Having saved Audrey from the dentist, he cannot save her from Audrey II, the fruit of his own ambition.

In a way, “Little Shop” thus provides a tagline for the entire festival, a warning true to Shakespeare no less than Ashman: “Don’t feed the plant.”

Billy Elliot
Through Nov. 10 at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario; 800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. Running time: 2 hours 44 minutes.

Little Shop of Horrors
Through Nov. 2 at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario; 800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes.

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