Tuesday, December 08, 2009

War and Peace and the Public - Stuff Happens & Hair - Theatre Reviews

Stuff Happens - Studio 180 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by David Hare, Directed by Joel Greenberg
Runs until Dec. 23rd 2009

Hair - Al Hirschfeld Theatre - Broadway - New York, NY - ***** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Galt MacDermott, Book and Lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, Directed by Diane Paulus, Choreographed by Karole Armitage

The revivals of Hair and Stuff Happens may have moved to bigger stages this year, just as its slams against the Bush administration are less urgent or timely, but that doesn't diminish their theatrical impact.

Last years Hair in The Public in the Park's summer revival caught on the air of change just as the elections were gearing up, but a commercial move to Broadway and moving the outdoor setting of the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park into an indoor Broadway theatre has only strengthened the show.

Stuff Happens originally premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2004, then made its American debut at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, finally making its New York debut at The Public Theatre. It finally premiered in Toronto last year at the Berkeley Street Theatre but has now gotten a commercial transfer thanks to Mirvish, adding it to it's giant subscription base (apparently the largest in North America). Pretty impressive since it's a pretty straight forward recount of the Bush administration leading up to the invasion of Iraq after 9/11.

I never saw any of the earlier incarnations of Stuff Happens, so I'm not sure how different Joel Greenberg's production is from the others, but I loved how theatrical he made the whole proceedings, especially since the play is basically a series of discussions, meetings and speeches, sometimes verbatim from the real Bush administration, that basically indicts their decisions to lead America into an invasion on Iraq. Of course, this being 2009, it's all stuff we know already, and the play being presented in Canada, it's all stuff Canadians knew at the time it was happening. So while the play presents a lot of the back office politics as shocking stuff, it's nothing we haven't really heard before. At least when you have my conspiracy theorist father or you watch The Daily Show or live in a country like Canada.

Still, Greenberg's swift and economical direction with a sleek and simple set by Michael Gianfrancesco and with beautiful and clever lighting by Kimberly Purtell, Stuff Happens is the wonderful sermon being preached to the choir. Along with a cast of some of the best Canadian actors, including a terrific Nigel Shawn Williams (above) as Colin Powell, Karen Robinson as Condie Rice, and an ensemble that includes the terrific Paul Essiembre, Sarah Orenstein, Sam Kalilieh, Mark McGrinder, amongst many others.

Some of my friends thought the famous portrayals were a little caricature, but I thought it was actually played at a nice balance, enough for recognition but never cartoonish. George W. Bush was played not as a buffoon, but as someone with self-interests thinking he's doing good while making dumb mistakes, which is almost scarier.

Meanwhile, I've already seen Hair on Broadway twice, having already seen it at the park twice last year, so you can figure that I love the show and I haven't really changed my sentiments since my first review.

The major changes in the move to Broadway have mostly been minor, but the tribe still runs and interacts with the audience, and the audience can still run up to the stage and dance in the bows, while Kevin Adams gorgeous lighting has become even more focused, while Scott Pask has beautifully shifted the outdoor show and with Paulus, managed to create a hippie haven in the Hirschfeld Theatre.

In the transfer, a few cast changes were made. Since Jonathan Groff moved on with his career, Gavin Creel (above, Mary Poppins, and oddly enough, now apparently Groff's real life boyfriend) wonderfully took over the role and made Claude his own, really centering the show with his wavering feelings on joining the war. While I loved Groff's portrayal, Creel has done a fantastic job with Claude's journey, one that isn't always easy to follow in Hair's psychedelic book. If Stuff Happens is a straightforward, moment by moment account of the US leading up to the war, Hair is certainly attempting to tell a tale of a young man leading into the Vietnam War, but in a drug induced haze.

Caissie Levy (from Hamilton, ON!) takes over in the role of Sheila, and she is the one major improvement that needed improving. The Park's Sheila was the biggest weakness in the show, and Levy not only grounds the role, but makes her intelligence and passion plausible and you get why as smart as Sheila may be, she might actually want to hang out with Berger. Levy's voice is wonderful and her performance really holds to the rest of the show now.

Sasha Allen takes over the role of Dion (from the departing Patina Renea Miller, now the lead in Sister Act: the Musical in London) and while I miss Miller's ingrained sass, Allen does a wonderful job nonetheless.

Most of the rest of the cast has continued the journey from the park to Broadway and I couldn't praise them enough. There are so many fabulous and energetic performances, that I can just name them all. Will Swenson (above) is just lapping it up as Berger, Bryce Ryness, Theo Stockman, Andrew Kober, Kacie Sheik, Allison Case, Allison Gunn, Brandon Pearson, Darius Nichols, Megan Reinking, Maya Sharpe, Kaitlyn Kiyan, Nicole Lewis, Lauren Elder, Ato Blankson-Wood, Jackie Burns, Steel Burkhardt, Anthony Hollock, John Moauro (and I'm sure I've missed a few) are all AMAZING and I just can't say enough about this production.

And apparently, they are going to London come April! But for now, don't miss it in New York, and if you can, try to get an aisle seat!

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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