There was a time when many young people believed they could levitate the Pentagon by surrounding it, holding hands and chanting; dissuade a soldier from killing by placing a flower in the barrel of his gun; and put an end to war, corruption, racism, repression and pollution through nakedness, love-making and blowing dope. They signified their membership in the hippie tribe by going barefoot, wearing colorful, frayed clothes and — since conventional America frowned on long hair and beards — sporting lush Afros or flying tresses. We're all sadder and wiser now, as wars in faraway places drag on, government spying invades our lives and corporate control of the entire country tightens. But if anything can capture the spirit of the late 1960s — the hope, humor, idealism and sheer inspired zaniness — it's the rock musical Hair, now being beautifully presented at Littleton's Town Hall Arts Center.
Director Nick Sugar brings Hair into the present without preaching, while remaining completely true to the spirit of the 1967 original. The show was revolutionary for its time in both form and content. There's not much plot, because it was created largely through improvisation, undergoing some clarification over time. The first act is pure celebration, an almost seamless sea of music and dance; the second, to be honest, is pretty much a mess, though an entertaining and evocative one — a mishmash of images and ideas all vaguely touting freedom, questioning history and attacking core American myths.
Among the East Village Tribe are irrepressible Berger, ambisexual Woof, soulful Claude, militant Sheila, sweetly drifty Jeanie and passionate Dionne. Sheila loves Berger; Claude loves Sheila (or maybe Berger); Jeanie loves Claude — though the child she's carrying isn't his — and Woof loves Mick Jagger. When Claude is called up, he's not sure what to do about it: burn his draft card, like many of his friends, or go into the military, as his conservative caricatures of parents demand.
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
Presented by Town Hall Arts Center through June 16, 2450 West Main Street, Littleton, 303-794-2787, townhallartscenter.com.
The tone is cheerfully iconoclastic, with the Tribe extolling the pleasures of "Hashish" and "Sodomy" in song, and African-American Hud introducing himself as a "colored spade, a nigger...a jungle bunny, jigaboo, coon." There's easy attraction between black and white members: At one point, three white girls sing an ode to black men — "Black boys are delicious/Chocolate-flavored love" — and a trio of black women rapidly responds, "White boys are so pretty/Skin as smooth as milk." Love and romance between races was intensely controversial when Hair was written (the racist response to a current Cheerios ad featuring a white wife and black husband suggests that in some quarters it still is). The first interracial movie kiss occurred only ten years before Hair, the first on television between Kirk and Uhura in a 1968 Star Trek episode.
I saw the much-praised national revival of Hair at the Buell a couple of years ago and enjoyed it, but I found this version more exciting — in part because of the intimate venue, but also because of Donna Kolpan Debreceni's exuberant musical direction and Sugar's smart, sexy choreography, not to mention the unshowy, time-period perfection of Linda Morken's costumes. The entire cast performs with infectious zeal. Matt LaFontaine is all crazed and irresistible energy as Berger, and Rebekah Ortiz is sweetly daffy as pollution-fearing, gas-mask-wearing Jeanie. Casey Andree makes an appealing Claude, and Tyrell D. Rae a lithe, finger-snapping Hud. And there are dynamite performances from the two leading women. I'll remember Ashlie-Amber Harris's whole-hearted, full-throated "Aquarius" for a long, long time, and Norrell Moore is a much stronger Sheila than the actress I saw in the revival — less stagey, more down-to-earth, and far more appealing. It doesn't hurt that she has a terrific voice and two of the show's best songs, "Easy to be Hard" and "Good Morning Sunshine."
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Looking around, I saw quite a few middle-aged men in the audience; there was pleasure on their faces, absorption and a little wistfulness. I couldn't help wondering how many of them had been hippie protesters in the '60s. Or soldiers. Over the years I've seen all kinds of friendships and alliances form between these once deeply antagonistic groups, no doubt because they share an understanding impossible for those who didn't experience the era. And what better vehicle could there be for healing and goodwill than this joyous celebration of life itself?