Friday, January 06, 2006

HAIR (Cain Park)

‘HAIR’ at Cain Park, more affect then effect, but audience pleasing

When ‘HAIR,’ now in production at Cain Park’s Alma Theatre, opened on Broadway in 1968, it was the musical that best mirrored the life and times of the 60s...the anti Vietnam war movement, free love, the hippie crusade, nudity, breaking of traditional values, anti-establishmentarianism and the rise of rock and roll. It mirrored a generation that would not blindly be led, who burned draft cards and bras in order to express their views of what was wrong with the U. S. political and social system. In fact, it was subtitled, “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.”

The book and lyrics for ‘HAIR’ were written by Jerry Ragni and Jim Rado with music by Galt MacDermot. Memorable music it is. The score contains such hits as “Aquarius,” “Donna,” “Hashish,” “Manchester, England,” “I Believe in Love,” “Air,” and “Good Morning Starshine.”

The original production was directed by Lorain-native Gerald Friedman, who at one time served as Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare (Theatre) Festival.

The show challenged many norms held by Western society at the time. It caused controversy. Much publicity was provoked by the Act I finale which included nudity. (The Cain Park production does not contain that misunderstood scene.) Many thought the nudity was included as a shock factor. It achieved that, but its purpose was much more. It was a statement of exposure. It allowed the cast, as the characters, to express the statement of being to the controls of the time. The were living restricted lives where they were forced to go fight a war that they didn’t believe in, living lives according to customs they didn’t like, including that they should not have long hair, needed to wear conservative clothing, had their political voices taken away from them (they were too young to vote, but old enough to be drafted.) It was Ragni and Rado’s tool for shocking societies’ sensibilities into an awareness of the limiting of a free voice, the freedom to do and act as each person wanted.

Because of the show’s burning of the American flag (omitted in the Cain Park production) and the course language used (included in the Cain Park version), a case against the production went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. The court’s decision not to censure the show ended many of the rules of censorship. (Ironically, the flag burning issue has again surfaced.)

The show actually has a weak book. The major story line, which concerns whether Claude, who has received his draft notice, will go into the service, doesn’t enter the production until late in the first act. The first part of the show lays exposition to the politically-active views of a group of long-haired" Hippies of the Age of Aquarius." Ultimately, Claude goes to Vietnam and is killed.

There have been revivals of the play due to what many feel are its parallel message to the war in Iraq and the comparable political deviousness of the Nixon and Bush administrations. A thoughtful evaluation, however, reveals some parallels, but great differences. There is no universal draft today. There is no above or underground movement to overthrow the administration, as was the case in the 60s. There have been no Kent State riots, mainly small peaceful demonstrations. It is also probably why, there is a disconnect in the Cain Park production.

The Cain Park cast, though the actors are filled with enthusiasm, don’t seem to “get it.” They play characters, they do not populate the roles. Only Mitch McCarrell, as Claude, seems to have a real grasp of the implications of what the characters are doing, what their actions represent…a total dedication to a cause. This generation doesn’t have the experiences of being parts of “causes.” They haven’t put their physical and emotional lives on the block like the anti-war activists, the freedom fighters, and the women’s libbers did.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The production, as directed by Victoria Bussert, is an audience pleaser due to its fine musical sounds, enthusiasm and creative settings, but it misses the message mark. It is a production of affect, not effect. It looks great on the surface, but fails to develop the underlying message of the times it represents. This may not be obvious to the average audience member, many of whom didn’t live through the put-your-life-on-the-block-rebels-with-a-cause years. Those who look at theatre as a means of entertainment, not as a means to teach and reflect important messages, will love the show. Others will be troubled by the lack of message depiction.

Janeice Kelley-Kitely’s choreography is outstanding. There are no dance numbers, per se. Instead the scenes are movement segments. Highlights are “Black Boys,” “White Boys’ and the intriguing “Walking in Space.”

The cast puts out full efforts. Phil Carroll, makes a strong physical presence as Berger. Benji Reid handles the role of Woof well. Libby Servais, is plaintive as the pregnant Jeanie. Kayce Çumming’s vocal version of “I Believe in Love” is strong though her “Good Morning Starshine” lacks the needed vocal texturing. The chorus sings well.

Jeff Herrmann’s set and lighting designs work well. Matthew Webb’s musical direction is excellent. Charlotte Yetman’s costumes are generally era correct.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HAIR’ is an audience pleasing production which has all the veneer needed to highlight the show’s songs, but misses the mark in keying the emotional and historical impact of the play as it represents the era from which it comes.