Reviewed by G.L. Horton
The North Shore Music Theatre's 30th-anniversary revival of "Hair" was an enlightening theatrical experience as well as an entertaining one, well worth the $36,000 grant bestowed upon it by the National Endowment for the Arts. I remember being delighted, bewildered, and moved by the 1969 touring version of "Hair"-- Tom O'Horgan's Broadway staging of the off Broadway original-- when I saw it in Boston. Time, a bit of rewriting, and North Shore director Philip Wm. McKinley's fresh staging that favors communication over dazzle, all worked to remove the bewilderment; revealing a fine expressionist portrait of the emotional temperament of era and a generation. This historical artifact is all the more affecting at the North Shore in that it is performed with generous empathy by a cast that is exactly the right age to be the children of the now fiftyish survivors of the "Hair" era who make up the majority of the theatre's audience. (The part of the audience that wasn't fifty seemed to be under twenty-- betweeners were conspicuous by their absence.)
Choreographer Mary Rotella brought the Tribe up through the audience for "This is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius" in a generous rush of joy, to gather on a big round stage whose metal scaffolding seemed an extension of the overhead light grid and whose radial cables and struts were festooned by set designer Bill Stabile with junk sculpture made from bottles and cans and miniature white Xmas tree lights in the form of the signs of the Zodiac. John McLain's lighting was fabulous, as is only appropriate for a show that celebrates sensation. The kids in Elspeeth McClanahan's psychedelic get-ups were graceful and friendly, but the comfortable suburban audience was a bit slow to warm to them. Probably some solid citizens were concerned with exactly how embarrassing this portrait of their peers' salad days was going to be. But there was nothing for the Tribe's elders to worry about. The healthy exuberant young actor/singers weren't out to comment on the inadequacy of "turn on, tune in, drop out" as philosophy, or to underline how poor a substitute quick sex and tolerant exoticism are for security and brotherhood and unconditional love. The cast were Method Hippies, mirroring if not the best and brightest, certainly the most sensitive and vulnerable, of the sixties cohort.
Maybe they were a little nervous because what most of them remebered about"Hair" was that it has a notorious nude scene, and at North Shore there's no way to play such a scene except up close and in the round. Well, director McKinley staged the first act finale "Be-In" so ingeniously that only the truly prurient were likely to have paid much attention to the nudity. I mean, I knew by my peripheral vision that the actors had stripped under a sort of blanket-tent in the dim light and I could tell that some were making their way past my row to exit. But what was happening meanwhile on the brightly lit raised center platform was so compelling that I couldn't spare a moment to stare at the passing bareness. Then the stage lights went off, the "police"announced they were raiding the theatre, and we were herded out under guard for intermission.
But of course "Hair" is really the music. What plot there is is so minimal that the revisions in dialogue Rado and Ragni made over the years don't really amount to a difference. There's just enough book to set forth the form and pressure of the time, 1968's desperation and fear that is the premise of every song as well as every scene. What is striking thirty years later is how little rage there is in the score and how much wit; how few of the numbers work themselves into a frenzy, how much variety there is in the different kinds of sublimation going on. Galt MacDermot composed a theatre piece that is more oratorio than opera, a spiritual journey whose protagonist is the chorus, the Tribe. The Tribe is very young-- adolescents united by their perception that the time is out of joint. The Vietnam war is on TV and it doesn't look good. The sons of the elite may be able to dodge the draft while cultivating a tender conscience or preparing for a career, but ordinary lower middle class kids seeing those hootches and body bags suddenly feel that what Uncle Sam expects of them is absurd. Absurd and unnatural and evil and cruel, to be resisted even if the only resistance to hand is smoking a joint, letting your hair grow, and escaping into fantasy.
Tom Stuart is lovely as Claude, the artistic blonde kid who might
have been a rock star or a filmmaker if only he'd been born in "Manchester
England, England"; Matt Walton is a charismatic if vocally disappointing
Berger, midway between Old Testament prophet and class clown; Cathy
Trien's feisty Sheila has plenty of presence and her own ideas about
how things should be done, but she is stuck with being Berger's groupie
and/or Claude's Dulcinea. Rachel Stern, as the perpetually
stoned and very pregnant Jeanie, teeters gracefully between selflessness
and mindlessness. MacDermot's songs explore all the fantasy escape routes:
hedonism, rebellion, political agitation, superstition and denial-- and
come to a dead end. Claude is drafted, crew cut, sent to Vietnam,
and killed before he ever has an inkling "Where is the something, where
is the someone, who'll tell me why I live and die". Beyond the four
who have the biggest roles, almost everyone in the Tribe-- and Moms and
Dads too-- gets a chance to show off attractive personalities and flexible
voices and emotional potential, to affirm differences of color and
class and temperament as positive, and to stand in metaphorically for all
the potential of youth squelched and sacrificed to fit society's
demands. The bleak finale of the script as published in 1969 has
been extended from a dirge-like "Eyes Look Your Last" through a
reprise of "Let the Sun Shine In" that had the audience on their
feet and singing along. "Bow Music" brought the whole cast
forward as the Tribe of the All the Fragile Young, appealing directly to
the 1998 audience for a universal blessing: Approve of us, tell us that
we are beautiful. That will mean that you were beautiful, too, when you
were young as we are, and that you are beautiful now. Everything is forgiven
and anything is possible-- once upon a time, or some day.