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.