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article image'HAIR' we grow again - Toronto theatre production remounted Special

By Bryen Dunn     Dec 16, 2011 in Entertainment
Toronto - The musical HAIR is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto for a very limited run until the end of the year. The original production ran for over a year, and changed the face of theatre in Toronto.
The whole concept of “going to the theatre” has been changing over the years. The traditional stoic theatre perception has become quite loosened, and the current audience diversity is a reflection of this change. On the evening I attended, there were middle-aged women in formal gowns, conservative men in suits, teenagers in baggy pants, and older men in tie-dyed shirts.
I had seen the movie years ago, I own the double vinyl soundtrack, and I had seen a fringe production of the play at some point in the past. When the first note from “Age of Aquarius” emanated from the stage, it was like a flashback for me, and many in the audience. However, for those seated in front of me that were under twenty years old, this was the beginning of a whole new trip.
From that moment on, the cast of about two dozen were off and running up and down the aisles, over the seats, up the rafters, and gyrating their bodies in front of those lucky enough to have been seated in the first couple of rows. The stage set up is one of most stark and simplest I have seen in sometime for a major touring production, but it works as it is more about becoming part of the characters than being transfixed by technology. The message is what matters.
The one observation I have is that with so many characters on stage at the same time, all the time, it’s difficult to build an affiliation to any one in particular. Even the leads seemed engulfed in the tangled twist of flesh, and didn’t come across as strong as they should have. At two and half hours long, including intermission, it did lag at some points. The vocals didn’t come off as promising as would be hoped for, and although the band were onstage, their presence didn’t seem to enlighten many of the numbers.
To the credit of the cast and crew, as I mentioned previously the simplistic storyline of disenfranchised youth has not changed much, and this could very well be the overall hurdle of this current production. As is quite common with remounted productions, the “wow” factor is sometimes lost through time. There were a few light-hearted modern references to bullying for instance, but they almost came off as a PSA separate from the script.
What kept occupying my mind throughout the duration of the performance was not so much about how things have changed, but more about how things haven’t. We still have disenfranchised youth who feel distant from their parents and society - youth who want to challenge and escape the norm, whether that is with drug experimentation, sexual liberty, or dressing differently. We also still live in a society run by a few individuals who youth view as being out of touch with reality.
As the second act came to an end, the cast joined hands with themselves and the audience to sing the joyous, “Let the Sunshine In”. As they concluded, they started waving for members of the audience to join them on stage. At first, people sat and stared, but then one by one people made their way to the stage, including myself. It was as if the audience was in a somewhat translucent state as well. We all danced, and smiled, and for that moment in time we were all happy with the world that we live in. That is the message.
This Toronto engagement of the North American Tour of HAIR is a homecoming of sorts. The original production had its Canadian Premiere on the very same stage of The Royal Alexandra Theatre back in December 1969. Unlike this current touring troupe from New York City, it was a homegrown cast of young Canadians who performed in the show. It was groundbreaking not just with the subject matter, but also because it was the first theatrical production in the city to play a record 53-week engagement.
I had the good fortune of sitting beside a gentleman who toe-tapped and quietly sang along to many of the songs being performed on stage. After a brief chat at intermission, I discovered that Wayne St. John was one of the cast members from the original 1969 production. In fact, he alternated the two lead roles of Hud and Berger for the entire one year run of the show. I asked him a couple of questions on his thoughts of this current reincarnation. The original production ran from December of 1969 to early 1971, and running time was just over three hours.
“I heard years later that I was the first one that was picked for the production, and I stayed for the entire run of our show, one of the best experiences of my life. It was very synchronistic being in the show as I lived in the US as a dual citizen, and in 1968 I came back to my birth place of Toronto when the US Draft was looming”, he recollects.
As for his overall thoughts on this current production, he surmises “Watching this production was like being in a time warp, and I felt no time had passed. Although the voices were strong and the actors were focused, in our show we had so much more choreography and elaborate costumes. The most noticeable differences of our show and the current one was the props, lights and a raked stage (stage at an incline). We had over 300 props on a much deeper stage. We made use of a trap door and Hud would jump off a seven foot high platform into the arms of six Tribal members. The best prop I used was a hundred foot rope that hung from the ceiling near the edge of the front of stage left. I would run and grab it in mid air and swing to the first balcony, landing on a diving board like platform”, he recalls.
Today St. John still continues with his passion for theatre and music. “I began writing my own musical in 1971 when HAIR closed, and I’m still working on this project today”, he states. He’s also produced choirs for Michael Bolton, Anne Murray, and Buffy Ste. Marie, shared the stage with Coretta Scott King and Oscar Peterson, and gave intimate performances for Nelson Mandella and the Dali Lama. He has a current song called ‘When You Love Somebody’ that is being played on the new R&B station G 98.7 FM, and he still performs live every Friday evening at La Castile Restaurant in Etobicoke with his partner Rhonda Silver. He’ll also be featured in a book called ‘Yodeling in Hi Fi’ by Bart Plantenga, to be released in 2012. “Bart is coming to Toronto in the spring to promote his new book and we have plans to do a few concerts where I will demonstrate my Jazz yodeling style, which can be found on Youtube under my name”, he concluded.
The HAIR National Tour is produced by The Public Theater in New York City.
Now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto
Ticket information and performance times can be found here.
Rush seats can be purchased the day of only, as soon as the Box Office opens. Limit of 2 tickets per person. Tickets are $25 each and are partial view seats.
Pre-Christmas Special - Tickets for only $27 (upper balcony) or $67 (orchestra & first balcony):
Thursday December 22 - 2 PM
Friday December 23 - 8 PM
Saturday December 24 - 2 PM
Call 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or click here and use code HAIR67.
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