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Naked Insurrection: a fuzzy-headed “Hair”

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“Hair” by Skylight Music Theatre

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Cultures throughout history have allowed individuals to reject society to seek wild truth; whether the Native American vision quest, the Hindu sannyasin, or the Medieval holy fool. Their parents still might not have been pleased—but it was an honored tradition. Since the age of reason, our civilization has abandoned such customs. So, when in the middle of the nuclear age, young Americans shucked off their ties, took to the streets,and started exploring sex, drugs, and pacifism in defiance of all norms, it was an outrage. From this historical moment, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, together with decidedly un-countercultural composer Galt McDermot, crafted the free-form musical known as Hair, On the virtues of its confrontational radicalism, hummable songs, and scandalous nudity, Hair played on Broadway for four years, and has been in production ever since. It’s a dispatch from those times, and a powerful work of theater in it’s own right, as the current production at the Skylight Music Theatre amply proves.

When the audience enters the Cabot theater, the charismatic young cast is already onstage, goofing around, chatting, or rocking out in evidently altered states of consciousness; this spontaneity goes a long way towards embodying the anarchic spirit of the hippie movement. Music director Viswa Subbaraman keeps up the high-energy tempo that the score demands. The design includes rambling urban scaffolding, a fireman’s pole, billowing sheets of sheer fabric, and several giant papier-mache protest puppets to capture the atmosphere of a 60s be-in; the infamous nude scene, as in the original production, is tastefully subdued in shadow.

In the role of Berger, one of the tribe’s leaders, Alex Mace sports a wolfish grin and tons of devil-may-care attitude, while Doug Clemons, as his ambivalent foil Claude, adds a big Broadway voice to Hamlet-like sensitivity. As committed activist Sheila, Alison Mary Forbes shows the movement’s conflicted relation between egalitarianism and unrequited love; Sherrick Robinson as Hud displays tenderness behind his radical bravado; and Ryan Anderson plays the polysexual Woof with gleeful abandon. There are a few really standout moments: Katherine Duffy’s sweet rendition of distinctively urban teenage heartbreak; the uncredited hilarious appearances of a couple of suburban tourists, and Claude’s cartoonishly baffled working-class parents also come to mind. Director Ray Jivoff movingly captures the show’s tragic sense of youthful ideals smashing into the cruel wall of life’s reality.

Sadly, however, the show tends towards rough caricature instead of treating it’s young dissidents as real people. Viewed from our "money is everything" age, they come across more as a gang of dim-witted clowns, grinning like inmates of some hippie museum, than as a brave band of rebels. The counterculture was a response to irrational times: the prospect of nuclear annihilation; an unjust and bloody war; rampant sexual and religious hypocrisy, and the ominous threat of environmental degradation: in many ways, the hippies were right (although they were of course childishly wrong in other ways; Amber Smith’s character, in a shapeless dress the color of mud, pot-smoking and extravagantly pregnant, could be seen as a walking indictment of the whole irresponsible movement). Still, in the face of American Puritanism, the flower children, as the song goes, “rediscover sensation:” a life of pleasure and play, as opposed to endless work, making profit for some plutocrat. “Our eyes are open,” the lyrics say, but the characters in this production seem to be fumbling in the dark—at the expense of much of the play’s mojo.

The stream-of-consciousness book needs a firm directorial hand to clarify the tribe’s complex skein of relationships and shape each emotional moment. Unfortunately, Jivoff often fails to do the imaginative work to bring this difficult task off; we often don’t know exactly why each song comes when it does, and suspect that neither do they. The dancing is energetic, but repetitive; admittedly, Twyla Tharp set a stratospheric bar in the 1979 film, but even so, Jeremy McQueen’s choreography seems to run out of ideas, often defaulting to generic leaping around. Finally, it’s a bit shocking that the premiere music theater in town can’t find a cast that can uniformly meet the requirements of the score—though, to be fair, some of this might have been due to opening night amplification issues. All this notwithstanding, the cast’s sense of fun can be contagious, as the ready-for-anything opening night crowd could easily attest; and the play’s anti-war sentiments come across clear and convincingly.

By its potent drama, good humor, listenability, and staying power, Hair has earned its way into the musical theater canon. But this (in many ways admirable) production, by seeing its subjects from our worldview rather than their own, ultimately fails to do “America’s tribal love rock musical” full justice.

Hair
by James Rado and Gerome Ragni
music by Galt McDermot
directed by Ray Jivoff

runs through June 8
at Skylight Music Theatre
Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N Broadway
tickets $22.50-$65

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