Sunday, April 02, 2006

Yet Another Standing Ovation!? - Hair at CanStage

We went to see Canadian Stage's production of 'Hair' yesterday. Neither of us had ever seen any production of it before (I was of age to in its first incarnation but it did not appeal). As SW (SillyWife) observed, it is likely that the company is doing such revivals as those of us who were of age to watch it back then now have plenty of money to pay the high costs of current theatre tickets. Next year they promise "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (sigh). 'Hair' had never figured in SW's 'cosmology'.
I had very low expectations, made lower by reading the review in The Globe and Mail in the morning. More on it later.
At the end of the first act, we were both pleasantly surprised, and agreed on a grade of B- to B for the production. My overall score sank to C+, as the second act scored a D, and, even worse, the play ended with those curtain calls where you cannot leave because everybody else in the house is up and clapping hands and singing "Let the Sun Shine In" as the cast endlessly reappears. I have endured such things more willingly - when I saw 'Mamma Mia' the confinement was bearable, because Abba songs are marvellous. But 'Let the Sun Shine In'? All around us people were standing and applauding - I was astounded. (Faithful readers know that this is not my first time in this, I think the worst of all, seasons I have subscribed to Canadian Stage.) Looking through the gaps in the legs around me I could see a few others who had not leapt to their feet.
And indeed found them as we walked out of the theatre. A woman behind us said "I think I burst two eardrums" and caused a general outbreak of mirth, and a comment from someone beside us, "I hope THAT gets into a review". So I said, "I promise it will", as I felt the same. So here it is.
What made me relatively like the first act? I thought it did capture the spirit of the times well (I was 19-20 then, but a nerd, and glad for it today) - the good things, the willingness to experiment, and the bad things, the appalling lack of judgment, and the utter self-righteousness. It is impressive that the writers got all those aspects, though they seemed to be fully part of giving themsleves in to it all. It made me nostalgic about some things, and turned my stomach at others, but it gave voice to a good deal, and if mostly from a teen-aged viewpoint, why not?
SW and I wondered what the current cast must have thought of trying to play these people with enthusiasm today - the program notes observed that they went through indoctrination sessions. They might well have needed them. They acquitted themselves well, in my view.
It stunned me to think this was the success the program notes say it was in the late '60s. Mediocre punning dialogue, childish posturing and attempts to epater le bourgeois, and moderately OK music. But this is not Sondheim and this was not Rogers and Hammerstein. But surely in its way at the time that was the point - like punk later, this posturing hit nerves.
The title is superbly revealing. It is mind-bending to think what energy was focussed on the length of the hair of young males by authorities in the '60s. (And when I spent a month in Singapore as little as 15 years ago, I had a long chat with a professional colleague who explained to me it was crucial they kept their hair length laws so that they could tell women from men - of course that was not the issue, and I found his claims funny - but I think now it was their well-justified battle to scotch the snake of the drug trade.) But it WAS. It was clearly a point of felt control. And give credit to the young 'uns, they broke it! Heck, at times, my hair got past the nape of my neck, and I know darned well it was uncomfortable! I keep it off my ears always now.
The other point of control that failed was 'dirty words'. So there is an early song in the show using the whole panoply. And it is funny - it sounds childish, like a 3-year old throwing the forbidden back at Mom. And of course that is what it was. The occasional 'sex scenes' look ludicrous now.
Time has not been kind to this show, but partly that is because the show served the cause it was part of. It made itself irrelevant. As it should be.
The second act was a great disappointment, but I fear that for me it was simply because the costume designer put the actresses in delightfully revealing outfits in the first act, and then covered them all up in the second (she had her reasons but I did not like them). To be fair to me, SW did not much like the seond act either.

I promised to return to the Globe Review. I shall just lift some comments from him and comment on them.
A relentless collage of unsubtle video projection, vintage fashion show and karaoke-grade singing, this production only succeeds in pulling the dubious double feat of undermining the old musical and exposing the vacuity of its new interpreters.
Everything he describes there describes perfectly what the late '60s were like! Was he there? And the 'karaoke-grade' singing is a lousy cheap shot - why is he so angry?
Prior's vision, if that's the right word, of the 1960s counterculture scene is superficial in the extreme.
As it was. What is in the show is shockingly and wonderfuly accurate.
All that talk about parallels between Vietnam and the war in Iraq that was supposed to prove the relevance of this period piece was just that: talk.
No idea what talk there was but the connections are slim indeed. There is a war. The whole plot of 'Hair' centres on the draft. There is no draft today. I have noted many attempts to make 'connections' to the situation today from people with no knowledge of history (note previous posts regarding Opera Atelier).

Next there is a complaint about:
video-game-like imagery that only enhances the high-school feel of the night -- a night hijacked by the audio-visual club at that. From newsreel footage to psychedelic colour explosions, practically every moment in Hair is accompanied by this barrage
Well, I and the 'lost eardrum' woman agree to a degree (it was way too loud!!) but for Pete's sake this show is about high school rebellion! (Even with 30+ year old actors as students.)

And then the review turns really nasty:
Normally critics are on autopilot in complaining when the visual overload of a show upstages the cast or unfairly competes with it. (See The Lord of the Rings for the ultimate illustration of this critical mantra.) This time, however, I'd like to part company with my own tribe to note there is a silver lining to the cloud of sensory overload: It offers a distraction from the thoroughly dull cast of largely unknown and untried musical-theatre performers. The thinking behind such risky casting in a high-profile production is admirable; the execution significantly less so.

Wow! And what crap! The writer is true about 'untried' and 'unknown'. But I did not for a second have the smallest feeling any 'dull'-ness exhibited came from the performers. I grant I don't much like the basic show or its conception, but my feel was the performers were doing wonderfully, for the most part, what they were asked to do. I don't think the problem with the execution was the cast - I think it was the basic show. His next paragraph:
Collectively, there's a wholesomeness -- which is not to be confused with innocence, lost or otherwise -- to the cast that denies the material its social undertones and its rebellious spirit. Everybody seems to function emotionally at the level of a cruise-ship production of Annie.
Well, I never saw the much more subtle original. Was it different? The social undertones of the actual material seem trivial, and the rebellious spirit utterly superficial. That is not because of the cast.

On the other hand I think the reviewer has a point - it must be near impossible, as surmised above by SW, for a young cast today to make any sense of this material, whatever re-education they undergo.

Another nice line from the reviewer:
There's no good news to report when it comes to the singing.
SW and I respectfully disagree across the board. This is not 'Don Giovanni' but I would like him to be more specific. It is not supposed to be 'Don Giovanni' - it is supposed to be somewhat crude!

He gets a cute line in:
The real tragedy in this Hair is not Vietnam but the vocal massacre of one great song after another.
There are few great songs in this show.
From the opening chords of Aquarius to the closing anthem Let the Sunshine In, from the comic Frank Mills to the thunderous Ain't Got In, the singing lacks feeling, character and, well, singing ability.
SW and I disagree. The woman who sang the opening Aquarius, not Dame Janet Baker, drew us in nicely. It ain't much of a song, so why would this matter anyway? Was Frank Mills about finding the lost guy? I thought that was done nicely. I do not recall Ain't Got In, but I doubt it was the cast in any way. I thought Easy to be Hard was done very well. The material is really not that good overall so why blame it on the cast?

And then this revealing comment:
It all rather forces one to re-think the place of Hair within American musical-theatre history, at the very least as a "now more than ever" work. Time has left this show behind.
Well, yeah, overall it seems to me a pretty mediocre piece of work. I think CanStage revived it for a bunch of reasons - some commercial, some maybe even believing it was important. It was popular, but I agree it looks irrelevant. Not for failings of this revival, but for its essence. This is not Steven Sondheim.

And the review finishes with its ugliest ad hominem:
For most of the cast in this spectacularly awful revival, the cruise ship awaits.
It is hard to explain how much that line disgusts me. The producers clearly went out of their way to give up-and-comers a shot, a few of them off recent time entertaining on cruise ships (all Norwegian by the way, which makes the slight nastier to me). None of the individuals clearly targeted by that last line in the review was manifestly bad. Makes me wonder what is really going on here. But I would really like to talk to the editor who let this review go by.

If this is the quality of theatre reviewing the main Toronto papers are now offering I would think the cruise lines are pretty attractive. No vicious losers determining the course of your lives.

UPDATE: A no more pleasant review from Richard Ouzounian (whom I once liked to use as a bellwether):
What always made past productions of Hair fly was the talent of the cast, but even that is lacking this time around. Let's be honest, most of the young actors on stage are not on the A or even B list of local talent available.
Of course Ouzounian is the pro but I fear again he has a romanticized view that there was ever much to this show. And the easiest scapegoats are the current performers. Give me a break. Who in his right mind would want hear "Let the Sun Shine in" sung twenty times in a row?

UPDATE: It sure is not pretty watching the old '60s generation being held up for respectability past all reason, is it?

In fact let us do it with Ouzounian's review in the Star:
This production could move intact to a cruise ship — although they'd probably ask for better performers in most roles.
What gets these guys going on cruise ships? It is true two cast members had that experience but it is likely more of a test than these reviewers have ever really faced.
The original production by Tom O'Horgan staged it superbly, culminating in a strobe-lit phantasm where rebellious black slaves morph into the North Vietnamese army.
And who would want to watch that today or think it relevant? In fact the real problem here is not that they did it incorrectly but that they kept it in the show at all.
Let's be honest, most of the young actors on stage are not on the A or even B list of local talent available.
Flat assertion, utterly unpleasant, from yet another likely B list performer (as a critic).
Kimmy Choi was unable to earn a single laugh (at the preview I saw) with the sure-fire comedy song "Frank Mills."
Maybe I am the idiot. I thought that song and the "Easy to be Hard" song were touching and well-sung, the rest testosterone-laced nonsense. I now learn from Mr. Ouzounian that rather than be touched by the last line saying she does not want her money back but wants to see Frank again, I should be howling with laughter.

This is sad.

I used to read Richard Ouzounian's reviews and consider them halfway intelligent and sensitive. One of the two is missing. One missing is enough to care no longer.


At 6:37 AM, Blogger EclectEcon said...

From now, be sure to request aisle seats so you can leave before the standing ovations go crazy.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger EclectEcon said...

Let me add that I absolutely loved the Fifth Dimension's version(s) of "Sunshine" and "Aquarius" back in the late 60s. I can readily imagine getting caught up in the moment and standing and singing along for a half hour or so.

Here's more:
In 1969, the musical "Hair" was on Broadway. It was interesting how the Fifth Dimension ended up recording "Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In". Florence said, "It was a real fluke. We were performing in New York City and Billy lost his wallet in a taxi. The man who returned it invited us to see a play he produced. The play of course was Hair. Well we heard Aquarius and we all just looked at each other and said ‘We’ve got to sing this song. It’s great.'" It was producer Howe who suggested splicing Aquarius together with lyrics from another number in the musical which became "Let The Sunshine In". He got together with arranger Bob Alcivar & put the two songs together, making them work as one single. "We recorded that song in Las Vegas, in this small studio," says LaRue. "Our voices were all tired, we’d been performing there for over a month. It was the quickest thing we ever recorded and it was one of our biggest hits." They were very close to the railroad tracks, and while they were singing the final chorus, a train rumbled by. You can still hear the locomotive, though, just barely, on the final master.

"Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In" remained in the #1 spot on Billboard's chart for 6 straight weeks and remained in the Top 40 for 16 weeks. Both the single and album "Age Of Aquarius" went Gold and received two Grammy Awards for Record Of The Year and Best Contemporary Vocal By A Group. They were also nominated for Album Of The Year. The song was also nominated for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist. The song eventually sold over three million copies, making it the biggest selling single that year. The original song was over 7 minutes long and it was Bill Drake of a Los Angeles radio station who suggested the song needed to be shortened to about 3 minutes; so Howe released 2 versions, one just over 3 minutes and one under 3 minutes.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Alan Adamson said...

You are not alone - quite a few people were happystanding and listening to 'Sunshine'!
I like you aisle seat suggestion.

At 11:09 PM, Blogger rondi said...

I love "Easy to be Hard."


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