by Stu Brown
Staging a production of the musical Hair can be problematic. The show, which premiered in New York almost 50 years ago, can be seen as timeworn and anachronistic. Images and songs concerning such topics as recreational drug use, sexual freedom and racial harmony don’t resonate with as much urgency and passion as they did in the late 1960’s. With that said, the Playhouse on Park presentation of Broadway’s first rock musical is mostly engrossing, entertaining and, at times, a powerful piece of theater.
Hair follows The Tribe, a bohemian collection of young people living in New York City. The central characters in the group are Berger, Claude and Sheila. Through action and song they comment on the aforementioned hot button issues of the period as well as riffing on politics and religion. Lurking just beneath the surface, though, is the all-too-real Vietnam War. Anti-war protests and burning of draft cards cannot neutralize its life-changing impact on The Tribe, primarily on Claude who decides to answer the call to duty with tragic results.
The central reason for Hair’s success is the shows large troupe of actors and actresses. Most have nominal experience, which gives the production less of a sheen and more of an uncultivated and raffish texture. The costumes by DeMara Cabrera, simple, carefree and psychedelic expressions of peace and love, add to the buoyant, laid back nature of the show.
The score by Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni is a classic that integrates elements of rock, blues, pop and folk into the performed numbers. Such well known songs as “Aquarius,” “Hair,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “Let the Sun Shine In” are part of the show. The onstage musicians are under the solid leadership of Music Directors Emmett Drake and Colin Britt. Their professionalism, along with the members of the small combo, provide an outstanding accompaniment to the diverse score. A problem, however, comes in the presentation of the songs. The Playhouse sound system was either not working well or properly aligned. A number of times the lyrics were incomprehensible. Also, some of the singers lacked the vocal power to carry a song.
Director Sean Harris and choreographer Darlene Zoller have teamed to create organized anarchy on the small performing area. The Tribe moves as one organic being. They sway in a rhythmically synchronized array, but the overall effect the two have imposed on the production is a calculated casualness and unruliness. The Trip sequence, towards the end of Act II, where Claude smokes a hallucinogen coated joint, is artfully rendered. For an older generation the tableau of actors silently recreating the famous Kent State shooting photograph of a college co-ed screaming over dead classmates or of a self-immolating Buddhist monk are compelling images. Aaron Hochheiser’s deft and vivid lighting accentuates the mood and emotions Harris and Zoller successfully reach for throughout the show.
My one criticism is how the Act I nudity scene is reached. Author Scott Miller writes:
nudity was a big part of the hippie culture, both as a rejection of the sexual repression of their parents and also as a statement about naturalism, spirituality, honesty, openness, and freedom. The naked body was beautiful, something to be celebrated and appreciated, not scorned and hidden.
However, most audiences would not necessarily make this connection, leaving people to scratch their heads as to the meaning of why the actors suddenly disrobe. Also, parents be forewarned -- there is full frontal nudity, which might be disquieting for young children.
Hair, an earthy festival of the cultural and political upheavals during the 60’s revolution.