Thursday, January 19, 2012
No bombs greet this version of HAIR at Playhouse Square
Theatre is representative of the era from which it comes. Seeing a play that reflects a specific time period reveals the cultural attitudes of the people and society of that instance.
Seeing HAIR, “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” gives a vivid film clip of the 1960s and early 70s in the U.S. It was the era of the anti-war movement, rebellion against traditional societal patterns. It was the time of sit-ins on college campuses, hippie communes, flower children, pot smoking, tie-dye wearing, long hair, swearing and public nudity. It was a period of rage against the military-industrial complex. It was the time of a clear generational divide. If the young people could find a way to upset their elders, it was the “in” thing to do.
Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the show’s book was put to music by Galt MacDermot. Its slim story was based on the authors’ personal experiences. It centers on Claude, a member of the hippie community, who sells out and allows himself to be taken into the Army rather than burn his draft card or go to Canada. The play concludes with Claude laying in a death-like pose on an American flag.
When the show first opened, it engendered strong protest. In fact, on April 25, 1971, a bomb exploded in front of Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre during the Age of Aquarius show’s run at that venue.
HAIR broke all sorts of theatrical traditions. Members of the cast, known as the “tribe,” constantly jumped off the stage and interacted with members of the audience, invited patrons to dance with them, and they gave flowers and hugs to the unsuspecting. The U.S. flag was used as parts of costumes and burned. There was full-frontal nudity. Swearing, sexual acts, pot smoking, mocking of parents, a dance-in after the curtain call invited everyone to come forward and “be themselves.” There was an intentional ignoring of theater’s proverbial “fourth wall,” a separation of the stage actions from the audience.
This is not a well-written book musical. The plot meanders, the songs don’t fit into the story, often doing nothing to move the plot along. Again, a break from the traditional musical of the day. Though often referred to as the “grand daddy of the rock musicals,” its really a mélange of music and imagery. The music changes from rock to country to ballad to African American rhythms.
The show intends to incite strong reactions. How could a script which includes such lines as represented by signs carried during a protest which state “I saw god (note the small g) and she’s black,” “It’s a war that sends blacks to kill yellows for whites who stole their lands from the reds,” and “lay don’t slay,” not bring about reaction…especially in the 1960s?
The highlight of action centers on Claude’s hallucinatory drug trip in Act II where a series of horrifying visions, loaded with historical figures who are presented in the oddest contexts. It’s a microcosm of the whole show, which essentially unfolds like a tune-filled acid trip that gives HAIR its distinctive period edge.
So, how does the show wear over 50 years? The times they have changed. Reaction to swearing, smoking of pot, nudity, and protest are mundane by today’s standards. Many of the references are beyond the knowledge of the younger members of the audience. Unless you are an uptight conservative or an evangelical, who are not candidates to attend this show, the goings on won’t evoke much reaction. Only the wonder of “what was all the fuss about?”
Some of the music has lost its luster. Aquarius didn’t send me off onto a journey of effervescence. In fact, as sung by Phyre Hawkins, it wasn’t compelling. Hashish, in this age of rampant drug usage, is just a song. On the other hand, I Believe in Love, Easy to be Hard, and Good Morning Starshine, have held up. Of course, having the luminous Sara King singing them helped as did their themes which aren’t era bound. Other highlights were Manchester England, Black Boys/White Boys, Donna, and Where Do I Go?.
The cast is good. Handsome, charismatic Marshal Kennedy Carolan, who was substituting in the role of Claude on opening night, displayed a fine singing voice and made for a sympathetic character who gave in to the system, rather than standing with his “tribe.” Baldwin Wallace grad, Steel Burkhardt, was sensual, sexual and like a kid with ADD as he yelled, screamed and cavorted all over the stage and into the audience as he sang up a storm as Berger. Sara King mesmerized as Sheila. Will Blum was a stitch as a cross-dressing Margaret Mead. Ryan Link was effectively spaced-out as Woof.
The on-stage musicians, some of whom seemed bored after the long road tour, still produced an effective sound and underscored the singers, rather than playing a rock concert and drowning out the important words. The sound system made hearing words an easy task.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: HAIR is a classic musical, which entered the theatre into an era of reflection of the turbulent era of the 60s. For those who want to relive the era, or who want to discover what was going on during those times, it’s a good nostalgic trip. A little tired from a long road trip, this isn’t a great production, but it is entertaining.