Peace, love & long hair

This year’s offering from QMT rocks and rolls

Cast members lift Andrew McWilliams during one of Hair’s free-flowing dance numbers.
Cast members lift Andrew McWilliams during one of Hair’s free-flowing dance numbers.

Big, brash and so full of volume that it risks splitting its ends, Hair has been a musical phenomenon since it revolutionized Broadway in the late ’60s—even when it’s in desperate need of a slight trim.

More of a tribute to the age of sex, drugs and tie dye than a relevant revolution in its contemporary context, the rock musical has thrived—mostly due to its effortlessly cool soundtrack—in the conventional world of musical theatre.

The musical encapsulates the hippie movement in the form of a far out, far off, orgy-laden acid trip irreverently mocking all that is patriotic while glorifying Timothy Leary and Mick Jagger’s less-than-seductive scowl. It values flowers in a way that would make Oscar Wilde jealous, and fights “The Man” the only way it knows how—belting out soulful, impassioned lyrics that champion hope, joy, peace and love.

The latest adaption by Queen’s Musical Theatre packs all of the above into one phantasmagoric production.

Staged with a natural intimacy, Shea Wood’s production is vocally and visually surreal—the set and costumes are, suitably, groovy. With a bold backdrop of an innovatively depicted American flag and miscellaneous graffiti peppering the floor and apron of the stage, the abstract colours of Hair pop off the morose walls of Convocation Hall with flair.

Its costumes boast a similar appeal and, thankfully, look beyond the limited ripped-jeans-and-tie-dye motif that becomes so many Hair adaptations. They’re both organic and seductive; a mosaic of fabric patterns and earthy tones using scraps and strips of material to create a hippie patchwork effect in each garment. Complimented by a lighting scheme that’s enough to get the audience stoned, and a raw, bare, stripped-to-its-frames set, Hair’s visuals achieve the colour and funk of the hippie era and successfully avoids most of the conventional images.

Be that as it may, the choice of Convocation Hall for its performance space is an interesting one. The space doesn’t seem to afford as much flexibility as, say, Grant Hall would, especially with the use of two large scaffolding units and a set of wooden platforms that essentially eliminate most of the main stage floor. Intimate, yes, but also constricting.

Much of the play is then spent huddling in circles and puffing joints in true hippie fashion while a handful of the cast shout and sing in the middle. This is where movement gets limited, threatening to make the production feel a bit campy with its frequent sit-ins and tribal chanting of “glibby glub gloopy nibby nabba noopy”.

However, it’s this tribal singing that, even when other aspects of the production seem to falter, snaps the show and its audience back from their unwanted transcendental meditation. Carried by a handful of big voices (Laura Tremblay, Andrew McWilliams, Kevin Doe, Meritt Crews), Hair rocks and rolls through its onslaught of tunes with ease. This isn’t to comment on the acting, which was collectively weak at times. For instance, the character of Berger, the suave and free-spirited leader of the hippie collective known as the tribe, comes off as slightly awkward—certainly not the drug-infused bohemian cult leader who supposedly demands the attention of all who follow him. The comedic one-liners of the cast also suffer at times, delivered occasionally without much regard for charm—the natural witticisms of drugged-out hippies seeming forced. Thankfully, these missteps are overcome by the ensemble’s collectively strong vocal chemistry. The dancing is also intriguing, as traditional musical theatre gimmicks such as grape-vines juxtaposed with semi-acrobatic lifting, suggestive writhing and loose choreography to the point where it appears to border on improvisation.

The clever blocking and lighting also makes the nude scene—that incredibly awkward show n’ tell that made Hair so controversial during its debut—relatively seductive and provocative. The cast successfully hides all unwanted genitalia from view, thriving in the barely lit stage as they simulate an orgy with style or, at least as much style as possible when dealing with unprotected tribal love-gang sex.

The main problem with this Hair production is one that has plagued all of its various reinterpretations since Gerald Ford declared an end to Vietnam and Paul McCartney decided The Beatles weren’t worth his time. Once you look past classic tunes and controversial material, there’s a relevancy issue—one that, in the tradition of its predecessors, isn’t addressed in this production.The broad themes of violence and discrimination extend to all decades and generations, but the use of a very American counterculture that has been dead for almost 35 years seems too removed to be relevant. Hair definitely gets you high but like all good trips, there’s an inevitable burn-out phase. Leave it to the creative visuals and powerful songs to save the day, making QMT’s latest endeavour a production that should be seen and remembered for its innovative image and youthful passion.

Hair runs tonight at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Convocation Hall. Tickets are available at Destinations and only for the Saturday and Sunday matinee and the Sunday evening performance. A limited number of tickets will be sold at the door starting one hour before all shows. Adults $17, students $14.

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