My Theatre

23 January 2019

Hair at Hart House

By // Theatre (Toronto)

When the musical Hair opened 50 years ago, it made a real splash. A sexy, psychedelic, energetic show about young people seeking freedom and love at a time of huge political unrest. Unfortunately, Hart House’s production fails to transport you to that moment. Though littered with a number of good performances and cameos, the performance is largely underwhelming.

With very little dialogue and plot, Hair relies on powerful vocals and the liveliness of its ensemble of young hippies. Their infectious energy should sweep you away with them, but there just isn’t quite enough passion in all of the performances to maintain the excitement.

Part of this is certainly out of their control. A number of sound issues, in particular the balance between ensemble members (which hopefully should improve after the first night), mean that none of the production’s big numbers – for which the show is famous – really hit home. When actors come into the audience you can hear the power of their voices, and how it’s let down on stage.

There are some notable highlights. Andrew Perry’s Berger has a fantastic, powerful tenor voice, while David Andrew Reid’s Hud is a true triple threat and charms the audience. In the ensemble, Jaymie Sampa never switches off, providing strong vocals and injecting life into her scenes.

By far the best moments, though, come from Kevin James Doe, whose cameos as a principal and older woman are hilarious, and rescue the production at points when the energy has really sunk. His delivery and comic timing are impeccable.

The lead Claude, played by Christian Hodge, is nowhere near is charismatic, and fails to invest the audience in his intense personal struggle. He sings the part well – an admirable feat in a difficult, wide-ranging part – but he doesn’t give enough for a character who single-handedly carries the plot, as a young man stuck in the middle of a culture war.

There was never quite the sense that there was anything at stake – like the chance of being shipped off to war in Vietnam. In Claude’s scene with his parents when he’s considering dodging the draft, for example, there’s no tension at all. That conflict is at the heart of the cultural struggle of the time, and these rare moments of dialogue are the chance to bring them to the fore.

Visually, however, the production is impressive. Kathleen Black’s colourful costumes dazzle, Brandon Kleiman’s stage design is beautiful, and Julie Tomaino – the director and choreographer – demonstrates her skills with fluid movement and fun choreography. The lighting, designed by Kirsten Watt, could be much bolder but it never detracts from the performance.

Overall, then, Hair doesn’t get a great deal wrong, but in many aspects it could be dialled up several notches. As the run progresses and confidence builds, it could step up a level and become a great show – many of the ingredients are already there. On the first night, though, I came expecting a sensory overload, and left wanting more.

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