Sunday, September 07, 2014

No bombs greet this version of "HAIR," just heat and a simulation of an era

Theatre is representative of the era from which it comes.  Seeing a play that reflects a specific time period can reveal the cultural attitudes of the people and society of that period.

Seeing HAIR, “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” can give a film clip of the 1960s and early 70s in the U.S.  It was the era of the anti-war movement and rebellion against traditional societal patterns.  It was the time of sit-ins on college campuses, hippie communes, flower children, pot smoking, tie-dyed clothing, 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 flee to Canada.

When the show first opened, it engendered strong protests.  Yes, protests about the protests.  On April 25, 1971, for example, 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 and simulation of sexual acts.  There was an intentional ignoring of theater’s proverbial “fourth wall,” a separation of the stage actions from the audience.   This was a musical that broke from the tradition of the “nice” musical and took on controversy and started a trend in musical theatre of taking on contemporary and controversial issues.

This is not a well-written book musical.  The plot meanders, some of the songs don’t fit into the story, often do 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,” it’s a mélange of music and imagery.  The sounds change from rock to country to ballad to African American rhythms.

The highlight of action centers on Claude’s hallucinatory drug trip in Act II where a series of horrifying visions, loaded with historical figures, 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 all those 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.  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 due to their timelessness.

The Blank Canvas cast, under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, was enjoyable, with two glaring flaws.  First, Ciamacco states in his director’s notes:  “I was drawn to produce “Hair” because I feel our country is going through a very similar movement as we did in the 60’s.”  Sorry, my naïve young man, since the you were not yet born when the anti-war demonstrations and flower-child rebellions were going on, you are not aware of the dynamics, power, and out-of-control motivations that lead to whole college campuses shut down due to sit-ins, and the take-over of buildings due the anti-war vehemence.  Nationally, buildings were burned, students were shot for civil-disobedience (e.g., the Kent State massacre).  There may be some uprisings and protests today due to individual events, but the 60’s movements were national events.  The portrayals by the young cast, not imbued with the true feelings the play reflects, were on the surface, acting what they thought their characters went through, but not identifying with the real motivations, therefore not feeling the actual angst.

Second, the small space, over sold-out audience, sweating actor’s bodies, real smoking, and 80+ degrees of heat outside, led to a sweltering theatre.  When the cast shed their clothing at the end of the first act, many in the audience were tempted to join them, just to get some personal heat reduction.  Either the theatre needs to find a way to cool the space more effectively, or change its schedule and avoid producing summer time shows.  Whew!

Brad Wyner and his band were excellent, wisely avoiding letting loose with the heavy rock sound and drowning out the singers.  Jessie Cope Miller’s choreography was creative, especially considering that she was working with a large cast on a postage stamp sized stage.  The moves on “Abie Baby” were, in era language, “mellow.”

Perren Hedderson’s projections added to the creation of visual realism.

Though the choral vocal sounds were mostly volume over blendings, there were both individual strong singing and acting performances.

Scott Esposito was well focused as Claude.  Who knew that this stalwart of local dramas (he gave a ”bravo” performance last season in Ensemble’s “The Normal Heart”) could sing so well?   Becca Frick (Jeanie) did a nice job with “Air,” Jessie Cope Miller, she of big and well-toned voice, wailed in “I Believe in Love” and “Good Morning Starshine.” Neely Gevaart (Chrissy) tenderly sang “Frank Mills.”  “What a Piece of Work Is Man” was the show’s musical highlight.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   HAIR is a classic musical, which entered the theatre into an era of reflection of the turbulent era of the 60s and broke many traditional theatrical formats.  For those who want to relive the era, or who want to generally get an idea of what was going on during those times, the Blank Canvas staging gives an opportunity to take a seldom reprised trip through the times.  Due to a generation gap in understanding the true angst of the era, this isn’t a great production, but it is entertaining.
Tickets for HAIR, which runs through September 13, can be ordered at 440-941-0458 or