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Theatre & Performance Musical theatre director Donna Feore is Stratford’s secret weapon

Donna Feore, centre, speaks to the cast of Stratford’s production of Guys and Dolls in The Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont. on April 27.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Back in 1990, Donna Starnes made her debut at the Stratford Festival in Guys and Dolls as a featured dancer in the number set in Havana.

You likely know the scene from Frank Loesser's classic 1950 musical – where gambler Sky Masterson takes missionary Sarah Brown on a date to Cuba, and she gets drunk after Sky orders her dulce de leche instead of milk. "Doesn't that have alcohol in it?" Sarah asks. "Well, just enough to keep the milk from turning sour," Sky replies.

Returning to the show 27 years later at Stratford as director and choreographer, Donna Feore – as the artist behind a string of hits at the Stratford Festival is known now – wasn't sure if this vintage joke by writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows hadn't itself turned sour over time. We are now in an era, after all, where debate rages online each Christmas over whether Loesser's Baby, It's Cold Outside is an ode to date rape.

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"I was uncomfortable with that scene where he keeps giving her booze," admits Feore, who says she has found a way through choreography to give a "different take" on the scene for her production opening Tuesday at the Ontario repertory theatre. "I have a daughter [at university] – and I worry about that all the time, of anyone being taken advantage of."

Behind every successful Canadian classical theatre, there is a musical-theatre director helping to keep the crowds coming and the budget in balance. If you had to pick a single artist most responsible for pulling Stratford out of the red over the past four seasons, it would be Feore – who has hit the mark again and again with Fiddler on the Roof, Crazy for You, The Sound of Music and A Chorus Line.

On one level, her success is due to 23 seasons of experience working on the Festival Theatre's unconventional thrust stage, growing from dancer to choreographer to assistant director to director there – and knowing how to use it in all its wham-bam glory. But the other, less spectacular reason has been her reimagining of the classics through a contemporary, feminist lens – her Sound of Music, for example, being notable for not feeling the need to pit Maria against the Baroness and, indeed, avoiding stock portrayals of characters from the Mother Abbess to 16-going-on-17 Liesl.

The combination of brash choreography and sensitive direction should be apparent in her Guys and Dolls again this season. "I have to direct it from a female point of view, because I am a woman," says Feore, who will also tackle Jean Giraudoux's poetic satire The Madwoman of Chaillot starring Seana McKenna.

The historical absence of the female gaze in musical theatre is well illustrated by Guys and Dolls. It's been on Broadway five times, on London's West End four times – and this will be its third time at the Stratford Festival. But in all of those, bar this one, it has been directed by guys, not dolls.

Scratch at the reputation of the comedy as a, as Feore puts it, "perfectly constructed musical" – and there are some signs that it's not as surefire a crowd-pleaser any more. The last Broadway revival directed by then-Stratford artistic director Des McAnuff was a financial flop in 2009, while a West End revival last year shuttered four months ahead of schedule. It's no secret that Stratford needs Guys and Dolls to do solid business in order to support its wide-ranging classical work: this season, Shakespeare, but also Euripides, Molière, Middleton and Sheridan.

Out of a dozen or more shows each season, the company usually only produces two musicals – but they account for 30 per cent to 40 per cent of ticket sales. "Earned revenue is critical to the success of the festival," artistic director Antoni Cimolino says. "There's a lot of responsibility that Donna has on her plate."

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Feore's status as a good old reliable director of musicals didn't come overnight. Indeed, she was not immediately taken by Stratford when she was offered her first job there by the late director Brian Macdonald after he saw her in a revue at the Imperial Lounge at Toronto's Royal York Hotel. Raised in Prince George, she already had a career that spanned from ballet to what she calls "commercial dance" in Vancouver, Los Angeles and Toronto and was not eager to return to small-town life.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is a small place,'" she recalled of first passing a sign for the Ontario Pork Congress. "But I realized quickly that you could really develop your craft here."

Alongside Guys and Dolls in her first season, Richard Monette – not yet artistic director – also asked Feore to choreograph the feast of the Lupercal in his production of Julius Caesar. Then came steady work as a choreographer or assistant and working as Macdonald's associate for five years. It wasn't until 2006 – a second marriage, to festival star Colm Feore, and two kids later – that she got the opportunity to direct: Oliver!, starring her husband as Fagin.

While Stratford's dues-paying culture can be stifling for some, Donna Feore's career is an argument in its favour. Few directors anywhere have such a deep history with musicals on a thrust stage; proscenium or "picture frame" stages are the norm for the genre and its top directors and choreographers generally think in terms of two-dimensional pictures. When you have dancers nearly surrounded by spectators, however, you have to think in three dimensions – closer to how choreography works in film. Feore's career outside Stratford has helped her develop those skills – regularly choreographing productions shot in Canada, such as the Eloise TV movies with Julie Andrews and the movie Mean Girls.

Like a film director, she storyboards each number in a musical before rehearsals begin – paying attention to character, what the story is being told through each number and how to shift focus. "It can't be about the steps," she says. "All movement has to be an extension of the character."

It's through this process that Feore has reworked the Havana scene in Guys and Dolls to be funny again. Part of her appeal to both purist and progressive audience members is that her massaging of material is subtle: She believes in serving the author and that most directorial concepts should just go to what she calls the "good-idea island" and stay there. Indeed, while the possibility of dated gender politics is in Guys and Dolls's very title, Feore vigorously defends it – noting how unusual Loesser's musical is in focusing on women with jobs in 1950.

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Sarah leads the Save-a-Soul Mission, General Cartwright commands – and even and especially Miss Adelaide, whose most famous song is a lament that her boyfriend Nathan Detroit won't marry her, would be making big money in burlesque at the time. "You do the research on that, that's an average of $1,000 a week," Feore says. "Adelaide didn't need a man; she just wanted one."

Blythe Wilson, who's returning to Stratford after nine seasons away to play the plum role, loved working on scenes with Sean Arbuckle's Nathan Detroit to bring out the real love between the characters. "Donna's completely come into her own as a director," Wilson says. "It's been amazing, as a female actor, watching her negotiate the room."

One thing Wilson has also noticed at Stratford is how, under Cimolino, there are now as many or more women directing shows as men. "It's a real hen house now – we love it," she says.

Feore appreciates that as well. "That's the evolution I've had a Stratford," she says. "It was really more of a male-centred world and it's very different now."

Guys and Dolls runs from May 30 to Oct. 29 at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont. (stratfordfestival.ca).

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