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This is called, “I’m onstage in Hair at the Hirschfeld and I’m acting my face off!”

When the original Broadway cast of Hair departed for London, something happened over there on 45th Street. Maybe there’s something in the water pipes, or the producers started handing out nightly bonuses for Best Acting Ever, but there’s a sense and spirit among the new Tribe and its principals that is markedly… different… than what’s gone before.

And I don’t know if I like it so much.

I’m not the type to dis a replacement cast just because they’re a replacement cast. I’m not from New York. My entire theater-viewing history is based on national tour casts and replacements, and I cherish some of those performances. (I saw Steven Pasquale as Chris in Miss Saigon. Come on, now.)

And the new Tribe as a unit is really solid. They’re high-energy and they look pretty and they sing well. Wallace Smith is a loose-limbed, fluid Hud. Jeanette Bayardelle is appropriately goddess-y as Dion. Larkin Bogan has amazing hair. They’re worthy replacements for the lovely folks who originated the roles.

But something is decidedly up with the new main principals. I can’t speak for Ace Young, because he was out the night that I saw the show. (Although he appeared onstage at the dance party. Isn’t that sort of like calling in sick to work and then running into your boss that night at a bar?) But Diana DeGarmo and Kyle Riabko have got some ‘splainin to do, because I don’t know what show they think they’re in, but I’m pretty sure it’s not Hair.

The thing about DeGarmo is that she’s just not very nuanced. She certainly sings the hell out of everything, and there are some big notes in “Easy to be Hard.” But there shouldn’t be laughter from the audience—full-on laughter, not just a stray giggle from someone who wasn’t paying attention—when Sheila talks about protesters getting tear-gassed. The book doesn’t do Sheila any favors in that scene, to be sure, but Caissie Levy could modulate through that rickety piece of dialogue—from silly, to sad, to relieved, and back again. DeGarmo, on the other hand, does so much over-crying and over-moping and over-stating that it’s impossible for her to recover with any deftness at all. For the first time ever, I understood why Berger got so annoyed with her. That’s not a good sign.

As an aside that has nothing to do with DeGarmo as an actress, but seems to be an affliction of this particular role, in this particular revival: Why does Sheila always have the worst, rattiest hair? In that sense, DeGarmo is following nicely in Caissie Levy’s footsteps, rest assured.

And Riabko. Oh God.

First, let’s address the good things, so I don’t totally bum you out on his performance: He’s really cute and he looks good in the costume and he can sing in tune. If you like those things—and lots of us do—I don’t think you’ll mind him so much. Beyond that, though, Riabko’s performance is pretty fraught. Though he enunciates each line like it’s Shakespeare, there’s nothing happening underneath all the mugging. His Claude is all bluster, with none of Gavin Creel’s tough disillusion or Jonathan Groff’s searching vulnerability. Whatever naivete he can muster is sort of accidental—it’s mostly because he looks so young. And if you don’t get at least a chuckle out of the audience—one chuckle, I don’t care—out of the line, “I’ve seen the war on TV and it really looks great,” you have problematic Claude on your hands.

Part of this, of course, is that we’ve all been very spoiled, Claude-wise. And let’s be real—Shelia-wise, too. But I’d hoped that there was another great Claude and another great Sheila out there somewhere, even if they had to be dragged away from some soap opera, or coaxed out of Los Angeles while their TV show was on hiatus.

The other mildly disconcerting thing is that none of the new press features any of the principals, even though some of them are vaguely famous. It’s all about the Tribe now, floating by on the top of taxis and looking mildly sexy, twelve feet tall, above Times Square. In a way, it makes sense. The show is intended to be all about the Tribe. And with this new cast, putting your focus on them might not be such a bad decision.

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Michelle March 26, 2010, 1:40 pm

    I saw Riabko in Spring Awakening on tour and it was the most un-affected i’ve ever been by a performace in my life. He sang very pretty but was just meh when it came to any emotion. At the end I looked at my friend and said “I don’t even care that Wendela died. and he didn’t really seem to either.” I had hoped he’s impoved a bit by now but sadly it looks like not.

    And thank you for pointing out Cassie Levy’s ratty hair. I saw Hair in previews and then much later in the original tribe’s run and thought I may have caught her on a bad day. It looked like she was actually living in the park and couldn’t wash it!

  • Julie March 26, 2010, 4:39 pm

    Nice write up. I really liked Diana’s performance. I saw the show last week and found her to be a delight regardless of one or two clunky line deliveries. Agree to disagree on that one.
    I do think Kyle Riabko has potential but he’s hampered by having to follow in Gavin’s footsteps. Plus, he needs to step up his body language and facial expressions in his interactions with Sheila to make it more clear that he feels something for her.
    Ace would have been a thumbs down but I just couldn’t ignore that his chemistry with Diana seemed to help his performance. I was talking at intermission with people around me and they all agreed Ace and Diana had a spark that was missing from the Claude-Sheila and Claude-Berger relationships.

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