HAIR at Hart House: The granddaddy of rock musicals is still a trip

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Jaymie Sampa, Marisa Dashney, Amy Janssen, David Andrew Reid, Makenna Marshal; photo: Scott Gorman

It’s the dawning of a new year . . . and the re-dawning of the age of Aquarius at Hart House Theatre, where Director-Choreographer Julie Tomaino lets the sun shine in with a bright, vivacious and visually-arresting production of the revolutionary musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.

Tomaino’s interpretation preserves the musical’s original setting of counterculture hippie youth living a Bohemian lifestyle in 1960s New York City. Costume Designer Kathleen Black gives the characters memorable, brightly-hued costumes, some of which are even on display for a close-up look in the theatre lobby. The show has an eye-catching aesthetic, and offers an energetic ensemble performance by its enthusiastic and appealing cast. The set lighting and designs are attractive and purposeful, and the staging leverages multiple levels and spills into (and at times takes over) the theatre aisles, in order to include the audience at key moments.

Believe it or not, Hair just turned 50. Since its Broadway run starting in 1968, it has been adapted into a film and continues to be frequently revived all over the world. Hair cast members have included artists such as Diane Keaton, Melba Moore, Keith Carradine, Ted Lange, Meat Loaf, Vicki Sue Robinson, Tim Curry, and Ben Vereen. The 2009 Broadway revival won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Revival of a Musical.

According to Tomaino’s notes in the house program, the musical’s birthday milestone was one of her main reasons for wanting to mount it. How well does it hold up a half-century later? Well, Hair was never really about the plot, given that its sole clear throughline is the decision of Claude (Christian Hodge), a tribe member, whether or not to dodge the draft or fight in the Vietnam War. In 2019, the anarchic energy of youth still resonates, but this feels even more atmospheric than story-driven than it would have in 1968. The majority of scenes involving various members of the tribe feel like vignettes that embody the attitudes, emotions and experiences of young people of the 60s. These vignettes link the catchy songs together, of which there are more than 30. Some – among them “Sodomy”, “Hashish” and “Black Boys/White Boys” – are … well, less subtle than others. Many, like “Aquarius”, “Let the Sun Shine In” “Easy To Be Hard” and “Good Morning Starshine” have permeated the musical lexicon so pervasively that many young theatregoers might not realize where they originated.

The Tribe in Hart House Theatre’s production of Hair; photo: Scott Gorman

Through character interactions and within the overarching theme of resistance, Hair engages with important themes such as racial equality, environmentalism, literature, religion, conformity, and patriotism. While certain historical details are no longer topical, the notion of youth rising up to assert their positions is as resonant in today’s divisive climate as it was during the Vietnam War. And what does remains indisputable in this production is the power of the music. Hair blazed a trail as a landmark and unconventional work which forever transformed the genre of musical theatre. It expressed radical ideas through rock music when rock itself was in its infancy, and had not yet found a place in musical theatre. Hair is the clear progenitor of the many rock musicals that followed: Jesus Christ Superstar, The Who’s Tommy, Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Passing Strange, and even Heathers, which opened Hart House Theatre’s current season. The energetic and sometimes acrobatic Hart House Theatre cast reminds us of this. They do the songs justice . . . while flowing in and out of colorful, choreographed configurations like an acid trip. We feel the power.   

Though times have changed, audiences’ affection for Hair has endured. Based on the enthusiastic reception by a full-house audience who braved a January snowstorm to attend Saturday’s show, Hair’s popularity has not waned. Most of the audience knew the music, and many were moving to it in their seats. And bad weather notwithstanding, a considerable number stuck around for the post-show Q&A with the cast. One small thought . . . considering the audience’s familiarity with the music and the warm response to this production, the cast might consider inviting the audience to dance with them, at least where the blocking permits. Given all the seat-dancing and toe-tapping, a simple invitation is likely all it would take for the audience to let their hair down, let the sunshine in, and embrace – with body and mind –  Hair’s central message of love, freedom and inclusion.

Andrew Perry, Marisa Dashney, Christian Hodge, Will Mackenzie, David Andrew Reid, Georgia Fox; photo: Scott Gorman

News You Can Use

WhatHair, Book and Lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado; Music by Galt MacDermot; Produced for the Broadway stage by Michael Butler; Originally produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival Theatre; Music Supervisor: Giustin MacLean; Music Director: Jonathan Corkal; Direction & Choreography: Julie Tomaino

Performed by: Andrew Perry, Christian Hodge, Marisa Dashney, Will Mackenzie, David Andrew Reid, Katie Miller, Georgia Fox, Sophie Berkowitz, Hunter Agnew, Kevin James Doe, Caitlin McMaster, Sidney Klips, Claire Boudreau, Jaymie Sampa, Amy Janssen, Mikaela MacGillivray, Bianca Orvis, Makenna Marshall, Sean O’Connell, Brendan Flynn

Who: Audiences 16 years of age and older; Audience Advisory: coarse language, mature themes, sexual scenes, nudity

When: On stage until Feb. 2, 2019; Run Time: 2 hours (includes one intermission)
Postshow Talkback: Thurs, Jan 24; Preshow Artist Chat: Sat, Feb 2, 1 pm

Where: Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, ON M5S 3H3

Info and Tickets: harthouse.ca

© 2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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