Forty years ago, when Hair transferred from an off-Broadway space into the Biltmore Theatre it was met with largely condemnatory reviews from the press. Many of the critics representing the establishment newspapers back in the day simply were not ready to accept this feisty, political, sexually freewheeling anti-war pro-drug hippie musical into the mainstream. And too, the more liberal, left leaning alternative (sometimes called "underground") press of the period knocked the show for being some kind of a sell out of counter cultural values that included all of the incipient social movements of the period. As if actually succeeding commercially and making a profit with a piece of theatre art was inherently a bad thing to do.
Forty years on, Hair is still getting a bad rap from the press as was evidenced by this revival which recently opened in Toronto at CanStage's mainspace, the Bluma Appel theatre.
Theatre is that most ephemeral of art forms that lives for the moment and then is gone -- unceremoniously ushered off the stage followed only by its own shadow. So when a period piece like Hair takes on an after-life, the question one asks is whether or not it is just a pale shadow of its former feisty self? At the conclusion of the first act, I was ready to believe that its relevance had been sapped and its time long gone. Until my partner (who had never seen the show) challenged my attitude and asked why I was being so cynical?
"Because I look at these young druggies and keep wondering when they are going to slip over the edge and turn into a bunch of Charlie Manson cultists going all helter-skelter on me", I answered. She replied: "Oh, I see them all turning into a bunch of young stock brokers!" I decided to keep an open mind for the second act.
And it is in the second act that Hair grabs you by way of its uncompromising stance against war, racism and bigotry. Like the bad acid trip that frames the mise en scenes, the play takes you on a little musical voyage in cultural studies by way of a minstrel show that describes Claude's (Jaime McKnight) final descent into hell and his death in Viet Nam inexorably leading toward the show's final laudation of life in a better world than this embodied in the anthemic Let the Sunshine In. If, by this time, you remain unmoved by this production, I suggest that your heart is a lump of coal and that your soul is dead, dead, dead.
The music from Hair must be the bane of Canadian born composer and jazz musician Galt MacDermot's existence in that he has never captured such lightning in a bottle since. The breakout songs: Aquarius, Hair, Easy to Be Hard, Good Morning Starshine and Let the Sunshine In were humongous hits, easily competing with its contemporaries of the day on Broadway which included Cabaret, Hello Dolly!, Zorba, et al.
Sheena Turcotte pulls you in right off the top by way of a belting Aquarius unselfconsciously re-phrasing the first line of the lyric and continuing to bend the notes to her own style. She never comes back around as a soloist but later in the show I heard a high soprano descant singing back-up and I looked close to find out where it was coming from. There was Ms. Turcotte joyously moving into her upper register with room to spare.
William Shakespeare gave Hamlet one of the most sublime speeches in all of dramatic literature in his "what a piece of work is a man" soliloquy. Set to music by MacDermot, it becomes the sublime moment of the second act as sung by Jaimie McKnight. Other members of The Tribe who turn in fine performances are Karen Burthwright and Katrina Reynolds while Andrew Kushnir is perfect as Woof.
There are some real problems with this production and I would be remiss in my obligation as a critic not to point them out. The decision to camp up the set and costumes (by designer Danny Lyne) with day-glo colors that are entirely too bright simply betrays the period entirely. A Volkswagon Beetle (it should have been a van) is too loud and garish and needs to be taken way, way down as do other costumes and props when they appear.
James Rado, one of the show's creators, was in town for the final weeks of rehearsal apparently "tweaking" the production and updating the book. Whether or not tweaking was actually saving the show from Robert Prior's direction will probably never be known. But one place where they both fell down was in imbuing this revival with contemporary political relevance. An advance piece in the Toronto Star by Gale (We'll Sing in the Sunshine) Garnett, publicly queried whether or not the show would condemn the Iraq war. She recalled the original Canadian production of which she was a part when it played at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto in 1970. Ms Garnett remembered how moving it was the night the cast was joined by draft resisters and deserters who had moved to Canada to seek safe haven.
In the second act of Hair, after Claude receives his draft notice in the mail, I noted that whenever the script referred to "splitting for Canada" or "driving to Toronto" the lines were met with some uneasy twitters from the audience. As I write these words, the Federal Appeals Court is getting ready to hand down a ruling as to whether or not deserters from the Iraq war will be granted asylum and allowed to stay in Canada. On that subject in this Hair, the rest was silence -- and that's a real cop-out, man.