Hair strikes a chord with a new generation
One of the main things that differentiated America's hippies from their counterparts around the world — France, Mexico, Poland, Germany and Ireland were all seething with protest at the time, and the Soviet Union drove its tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quell the Czech spring — was a zany sense of humor. Also a deep belief in the revolutionary power of drugs, sex, music and pure joy. A recent revival of the quintessential '60s musical Hair electrified New York and London and is now playing at the Buell Theater. The spirit differs from that of the original 1967 production — this show is far slicker and more professional — and yet its soul is intact. Watching the antics of Berger, one of the protagonists, I couldn't help remembering Abbie Hoffman, the yippie leader whose passion, anarchic humor and juicy Jewish masculine energy galvanized the movement. It was Hoffman who told the judge in the trial of the Chicago Seven that he had a drug that, when squirted at a policeman, would cause him to take off his clothes and make love. And it was also Hoffman, with fellow yippie Jerry Rubin, who brought all stock-market trading to a screeching halt by tossing handfuls of dollar bills to the floor and watching traders scramble for them like pigs at a trough. One of my all-time favorite cartoons was published after Hoffman's death: It showed St. Peter talking to God while a small figure with a halo of wild black locks slouched in the background. "He won't come in," St. Peter explained, "until you let everybody in."
The activities of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, their resistance to hierarchy and authority, and the right's revival of the old "dirty hippie" trope only demonstrate how beautifully timed this revival is. And the country is again at war. The difference is that the slaughter is now out of sight for much of the middle class, with the burden of fighting borne by poor and rural people. But in Hair, the specter of the draft shadows everything.
Berger and his friend Claude are central to the action. Sheila longs for Berger, and pregnant Jeanie wants Claude — though her baby isn't his. Chekhov would have loved all this unrequited yearning, but there's actually a lot more feeling between Berger and Claude than either man seems able to muster for a woman. Also in the cast: Hud, a black militant; the songstress Dionne; pretty Crissy, who sings the wistful "Frank Mills"; the ambiguously sexed Woof; a pair of befuddled tourists, presented with a twist; and the requisite straight and uncomprehending parents. The first act is pretty much an unbridled celebration and an ode to iconoclasm, with Hud declaring himself a "jungle bunny jigaboo coon" in "Colored Spade"; "Sodomy" and "Hashish" extolled in song; pansexuality saluted as a way of life; Tribe members shedding their clothes and singing the anthemic song for which the musical is named, "Hair."
The second act is darker, as Claude tries to deal with his call-up papers, and it's also more muddled. The interesting threads authors Gerome Ragni and James Rado began weaving in act one simply get dropped: the pain that free love caused so many people, the political differences within the group, the contradictions between their freewheeling philosophy and the demands of daily life. Much of this act is taken up by a drug-fueled hallucination of Claude's, which obviates the need for coherence. But some of the images are more silly than telling. Ragni and Rado supposedly hated Milos Forman's 1979 movie, but the Czech director's more seasoned perspective proved a plus: His characters are clearer, the sense of time and place less immediate but more lyrical, and the plot improved.
But what a show this is. The tech — costumes, set, lighting — is sophisticated and the musical arrangements rich and vivid. Most important, there's one hell of a cast — great movers, brilliant voices. Nicholas Belton played Berger on the night I attended, and the character was right where he should be: pitched between sexy and sullen, liberated and lost. Paris Remillard is a soulful Claude, and Darius Nichols commands the stage as Hud, revealing an astonishing vocal range. Caren Lyn Tackett makes Sheila too hard-edged, but she sings beautifully. And Matt DeAngelis's infectious charm as Woof is irresistible. The production evokes the exhilaration of an era and speaks across generations.
As we rose to leave, I was sorting a thousand memories. My companion, in her early twenties, was shiny-eyed, both happy and bewildered. "I've never seen anything like this," she said.
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