STRATFORD, Ontario — Spend a few days at the Stratford Festival here and you get used to strange stagefellows. Oscar Wilde consorts with Coriolanus at the Avon Theater downtown; a mile away at the Festival Theater, Prospero shacks up with Harper Lee.
That’s one of the pleasures of a repertory company on such a vast scale. (As of Aug. 2, Stratford will be running a dozen different shows a week in three halls.) Sometimes you are surprised by the connections revealed across styles or centuries; other times, you are struck by unexpected contrasts among things that at first looked alike.
I experienced both sensations when I saw the season’s two musicals — “The Rocky Horror Show” and “The Music Man” — at matinees on successive days. You might not think that these war horses, both given very fine productions by the director and choreographer Donna Feore, would have much to say to each other. But the subversive tale of self-reinvention and the feel-good re-creation of a vanished, simpler era turn out to be mirror images.
The feel-good re-creation, by the way, is “Rocky Horror.”
With book, music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien, “Rocky Horror” was already a throwback to the age of Hollywood himbo movies and science fiction double features when it was first produced in 1973. Mr. O’Brien used the camp clichés of those film genres — along with songs that sampled classic rock, glam rock and pop — to express and, at the same time, sugarcoat what was then a radical message of sexual anarchy.
The chief anarchist is, of course, Frank N. Furter, the “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania” who lives on polymorphous lust and is usually played by a buff man in a backward corset. They don’t get much buffer than Dan Chameroy, a Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda” and a Stratford veteran.
His brawn, no less than his witty, not-too-winky performance, sharpens the musical’s idea that liberation from gender conformity benefits everyone. This includes his homunculus Rocky Horror (George Krissa, also buff), the virginal interlopers Brad and Janet (Sayer Roberts and Jennifer Rider-Shaw, also buff) and even the audiences for whom the original production provided a rallying cry: “Don’t dream it, be it.” This fan base of self-described freaks and misfits made a community out of people otherwise excluded from mainstream culture.
That community grew enormously with revivals, the 1975 movie and the television production in 2016, but the first fans are now well into their 60s. For them — and they were out in force at Stratford, in full regalia and ready to party — the show is delicious nostalgia. The liberation it urges has largely happened; that “Rocky Horror” is playing in a temple to Shakespeare (it is, after all, the Avon Theater) is prima facie evidence of its mainstreaming.
So it’s no surprise that Ms. Feore has staged it — and Stratford has packaged it — with an almost civic spiffiness, a rock concert run through the laundry. (The province of Ontario officially supports the production with tourism dollars.) You can even purchase a “participation bag” filled with “fun props” like glow sticks.
At the performance I saw, those bags weren’t needed; most of the audience seemed to know the drill, including every step to the “Time Warp,” as well as call outs both traditional and recent. When Janet asked Brad, “What sort of place is this?,” they screamed, “Describe the White House!” just before he answered, “It’s probably some sort of hunting lodge for rich weirdos.”
That didn’t describe the packed theater, though. Despite all the beefcake and cheesecake on parade, and the amusingly staged scenes in which Frank serially seduces the virgins, there is nothing remotely perverse about this “Rocky Horror.” Somehow, sexual transgression has become good, clean fun.
“Good, clean fun” used to be the calling card for “The Music Man,” Meredith Willson’s musical from 1957, about a con artist who sells clarinets and trombones to credulous rubes. Like “Rocky Horror,” it was born a throwback, in this case to Willson’s experiences as a flute player in marching bands (he was in John Philip Sousa’s) and his turn-of-the-century youth in a stiff-necked Iowa town.
With its slightly tart portrait of parochialism and pride — one lyric in the song “Iowa Stubborn” invites strangers at a picnic to “eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself” — “The Music Man” offered audiences, confronted that same year with “West Side Story,” a rosier vision of what seemed a simpler time.
Ms. Feore’s huge and thrilling production on the Festival Theater’s thrust stage fills out that vision but also complicates it. For one thing, her Harold Hill (Daren A. Herbert) is black. The other salesmen and townspeople are also racially diverse. But because the color of the actors is consciously acknowledged, the production isn’t really colorblind, any more than the current Broadway revival of “Carousel” is.
In other words, Mr. Herbert is not asked to play a white Harold Hill but, since he is black, a black one. Everything from Ms. Feore’s choreography to the spectacular dance music arrangements supports that. This is no less than what Stratford does in supporting a female Prospero in its concurrently running production of “The Tempest” by changing the word “father” to “mother” and designing womanly costumes.
But even with minimal underlining, the change in “The Music Man” filters down through the story, bringing out different flavors. How Americans treat outsiders is one of the themes that becomes more prominent: not just in Hill’s story but in that of Tommy Djilas, the local bad boy usually played as an “ethnic” white but performed here by the terrific dancer Devon Michael Brown, who is black.
Also altered is the central love story between Hill and Marian Paroo, a white woman who is the town’s librarian and piano teacher. Though Marian (Danielle Wade) is the first to see through Hill’s flimflam, it’s she who ultimately saves his neck. That it’s a black neck matters.
These shifts do not detract from the musical’s traditional values but rather enhance them for an audience looking back at 1912 through the prism of 1957. Even if tinkering with classics annoys you, it would be hard to be disappointed with Mr. Herbert’s eely Hill or the delicious enthusiasm of the many children in the 41-person cast or the vivacity and variety of dance and song that Ms. Feore puts onstage. Her jaw-dropping “Seventy-Six Trombones” far outshines the version seen in the most recent Broadway revival; the final scene of understanding between opposites has never played as movingly.
That’s not entirely Ms. Feore’s doing. For a visitor from the United States, it sometimes seemed that current politics were also directing the material. I can’t otherwise explain how a Canadian vision of a proud, kindhearted and racially reconciled America made an old-fashioned, feel-good show like “The Music Man” feel the way “Rocky Horror” used to: transformative and subversive.
Follow Jesse Green on Twitter: @JesseKGreen.
The Music Man
Through Nov. 3 at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario; 800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
The Rocky Horror Show
Through Nov. 11 at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario; 800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. Running time: 2 hours.
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