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'Billy Elliott,' 'Little Shop' and 'Private Lives' light up the Stratford Festival in Ontario

Nolen Dubuc (center) as Billy Elliot with members

Nolen Dubuc (center) as Billy Elliot with members of the company in "Billy Elliot." Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

Since 2012, a highlight of my year has been making a summertime visit to the bucolic but extraordinarily busy Stratford Festival in Ontario for a multiday banquet of classical plays and musicals.

Unlike past years, where I was able to catch as many as six or seven shows (out of about a dozen in total) over a long weekend, this time I was only able to attend the musicals “Billy Elliot” and “Little Shop of Horrors” plus Noel Coward’s comedy of manners “Private Lives” — all of which were outstanding.

While the festival has been around since 1953, it has undergone significant changes during just the past few years. Its official name changed from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to simply the Stratford Festival, which better reflects the diversity of shows that it now presents. Antoni Cimolino (who excels at staging classic Shakespeare plays) has replaced Broadway heavy-hitter Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys,” “Tommy”) as artistic director.

The shows at Stratford have also become more geared around its diverse acting company and less around familiar stars. This kind of change is ideal since Stratford is one of the last places in North America with a repertory system, in which actors appear in multiple shows at once and impress audiences with their versatility.

If Stratford has a new leading star, that would have to be director-choreographer Donna Feore, whose productions of musicals in recent years have been consistently inventive and crowd-pleasing. This marks the second season in a row in which Feore has directed and choreographed two musicals at once, making Stratford twice as lucky.

“Billy Elliot” represents her best work to date. Staged in the thrust-style Festival Theatre (which resembles the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center), this “Billy Elliot” achieves greater intimacy and emotional power than the 2008 Broadway production.

Feore reimages the show’s dance choreography while maintaining its spatial fluidity. The show’s politics (with English miners fighting for the survival of their way of life) also feel more relevant today, as virtually every industry faces an uncertain future and income inequality has become a more urgent concern.

Feore’s enormously entertaining production of “Little Shop of Horrors” comes on the heels of last year’s popular staging of “Rocky Horror Show,” another musical comedy inspired by old-fashioned sci-fi films. And thanks to her choreography, it is the most kinetic production of this musical I have seen to date.

People often fail to realize that “Little Shop” is just as dark as it is catchy. Feore manages to capture the comedy without overplaying it. It was just announced that a new production of “Little Shop” (with Jonathan Groff, Christian Borle and Tammy Blanchard) will play Off-Broadway in the fall. I can only hope it lives up to the Stratford production.

Stratford’s penchant for Noel Coward comedies, it was not surprising to find “Private Lives” among this year’s lineup. Carey Perloff made the interesting decision to cast older actors as the divorced, awkwardly reunited couple the play revolves around.

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