Ambitious, heart-felt and radiating a palpable energy, Hair marks another solid success for Aurora’s Paramount Theatre. This isn’t the most polished production of the 44-year-old “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” On the con-side: Director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell has made some dubious editing choices, and the ensemble’s choreography sometimes looks more sloppy than spontaneous. Acoustical problems opening night left some of the lyrics garbled (whether the result of sound design or vocal problems is anybody’s guess.) Finally, one major casting misfire robs the show of one of its funniest (and most subversive) sight-gags.
Yet for all that, Hair is a terrific evening of theater. When the 24-member ensemble joins voices in numbers such as “Where Do I Go” and “How Dare They Try,” the impact is as richly tuneful as it is deeply moving. Almost half a century after it debuted, Hair remains an infectiously celebratory tribute to defiant love as well as hard-hitting anti-war statement.
The cast attacks with gusto the emotional underpinnings of Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s story of hippies and protestors tuning in, turning on, dropping out and trying to find a place for themselves in a world where the draft has made cannon fodder of their generation. That unflagging ebullience goes a long way toward masking the places where the production falters. The infamous nude scene, for example, seems to come out of nowhere. Ideally, the collective shucking of bell bottoms and dashikis comes across as a strong, impromptu statement about embracing individuality, owning up to vulnerability and protesting the forced lemming-like behavior the draft inflicts. Here, all that nakedness is little more than a gorgeous tableau, a scene-ender that’s beautiful and memorable but largely void of meaning beyond those memorable aesthetics.
Then there’s the “Margaret Mead,” scene, when a seemingly square middle-aged matron turns out to have a secret as subversive as any picket-wielding (Lay, Don’t Slay!) counter-cultural flower child. Instead of that secret being revealed in the scene’s hilarious final seconds, it’s apparent from the moment Mead starts talking. The character has been seriously miscast, and that miscasting essentially neutralizes one of the funniest moments in the show.
Also troublesome are the sometimes clunky hallucination scenes that form the center of the second act. The cast had yet to find its groove opening night as they portrayed the long, strange trip of acid-drenched dreams that moves from Viet Nam to vaudeville to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Granted, staging an acid trip is no frolic in the park. Still, the ensemble needs to find a way to move smoothly from one segment to the next – otherwise the audience is treated to a mind-mirage that labors when it should fly effortlessly high.
Finally, there’s the second act excision of a scene wherein a winter of discontent sets in, and for one member of the tribe, a cold, lonesome and disillusioning reality sets in amid all the talk of peace and love. The scene is key because it depicts the harsh reality of the whole free-love scene, namely that it is no guarantee against the pain of callous rejection.
All of those flaws, however, can’t dim Hair’s overall luster. Led by music director Doug Peck and backed by a rock-solid 11-piece orchestra, this is a cast with the vocal capabilities needed to do justice to Galt McDermot’s glorious score. When the full ensemble launches into the likes of "Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In," it’s a harmonic convergence worthy the summer of love.
Leading the vocal charge is Skyler Adams as Claude Hooper Bukowski, a middle-class kid from Flushing intent on reinventing himself as a genius from Manchester, England. Adams’ kinetic, rebellious take on “I Got Life” is one of the show’s high points.Adrian Aguilar is a muscle-bound Berger, charismatic unofficial leader of the tribe and the leader of a raucous, finale singalong that ensures ticket holders will leave the theater humming. Emilie Lynn’s Sheila needs to up the belt factor on the anthemic “Easy to be Hard,” but she holds her own when the NYU student protestor lets loose in “I Believe in Love.”
It’s the supporting women who really resonate here, including Maggie Portman, who instills “Frank Mills” with a gorgeous sadness that utterly captures the song’s understated mix of innocent optimism and yearning heartache. As the pregnant Jeannie, Dana Tretta delivers "Air" with the mordant drollness the lyrics demand. And when she opens the show with those first, indelible notes of “Aquarius,” Bethany Thomas sets the tone for all the richness to follow.