Quick, get the Rogaine. The new production of “Hair” now on view in Toronto supposedly boasts a series of enriching rewrites by author James Rado. But rather than help the material, they make the iconic flower-power, antiwar musical seem thinner than ever. A lot of the blame, however, must be laid at the feet of director Robert A. Prior, choreographer Stephen Hues and a decidedly inferior cast.
Prior is the founder of L.A.’s Fabulous Monsters Performance Group, and Hues has collaborated with him on numerous occasions. They have a reputation for doing edgy, innovative productions, which is probably why Rado demanded that CanStage import the American duo for this production.
But something has gone horribly wrong along the way: The brightly colored, insipidly staged mess being performed at the Bluma Appel Theater would be more at home in a theme park than at Canada’s largest regional theater.
It was their rough-hewn charm and political intensity that made the original productions of “Hair” work. The people who created, produced and performed the early versions of the show were united in their anger over the war in Vietnam. And so, despite an initially breezy air, some fetching tunes from Galt MacDermot and the inventive staging of Tom O’Horgan, the musical showed its rage in act two, which is largely a drug-fueled fantasy of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
This is territory artists can still revisit with sincerity and passion, as Twyla Tharp proved in “Movin’ Out.”
But Prior and company have opted instead for Peter Max-colored designs and costumes that look like they stepped out of an episode of “Laugh-In.” No one actually comes out and says, “Sock it to me!,” but you wouldn’t be surprised if they did.
Yes, there’s a nude scene at the end of act one, but where it used to be a personal statement for the cast, tied into their reaction to Claude’s moving “Where Do I Go?,” it now features the whole cast in what looks like a merely egregious way to bring down the curtain.
When it was announced that Rado was working on rewrites of the script, some people assumed he might be honing the political message to make it more relevant to today. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, he has expanded the book scenes in which Claude, Berger and Sheila work out the details of their not-quite-menage a trois. Maybe the material has personal resonance for Rado (the show supposedly mirrors his offstage relationship with co-author and co-star Ragni), but the cliched dialogue further drains the show’s political intensity.
In a city known for a deep talent pool of young musical theater performers, Prior and Hues have largely contented themselves with fishing in the shallow end. Most of the company doesn’t sing well, take the stage with confidence or seem to have any idea what they’re doing. From the moment Sheena Turcotte feebly warbles opening song “Aquarius,” you know you’re in trouble.
There are a few exceptions. In the leading role of Claude, Jamie McKnight shows the energy, vocal power and charm that he developed in Toronto productions of “The Producers” and “Annie Get Your Gun.” Andrew Kushnir, Matthew Boden and Adrienne Merrell find solid comedy in what they’ve been asked to do, but they stand alone.
Craig Burnatowski is a single-expression Berger (sneering), and Karen Burthwright has one vocal note as Sheila (loud); the rest of the actors are inept or forgettable.
This limp version of “Hair” is unlikely to attract a new generation of theatergoers to the work. Sadly, it may even dim the reputation this piece holds in musical theater history.