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First Place Winner of the 2010 New York City Theater Review Contest

  

Hair

review by Alexander Harrington

 

Many of the political and cultural ideas in Hair are simplistic, adolescent, and petulant.  The music is undeniably thrilling.  The play ends with a simple and powerful evocation of the obvious fact that people die in war.  As in the first Broadway production, in the current production and this summer’s staging at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, the performance does not end with the final scene but extends into a curtain call and encore that brings about the kind of joyful communal experience that many scholars and theatre artists believe theatre once was and which they strive to recreate.

 

Hair reminds us what a rock musical actually is.  The music of recent attempts at the genre (Rent and Spring Awakening, in which Shakespeare in the Park Hair lead Jonathan Groff starred) is actually pop trying to masquerade as rock – it is bland; it lacks rhythm and complexity.  The music for Hair by Galt McDermott with lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni stands as exciting rock; it does not need the word musical to qualify it. 

 

This incarnation is a significant improvement over the summer’s.  Where the Delacorte production did not spark for me until the title number “Hair,” the Broadway show came alive when Gavin Creel took the stage as Claude with the song “Manchester, England.”  Where Jonathan Groff had a sincere, naïve, affecting, but ultimately bland presence, Creel is a showman with a sense of humor. 

 

Karole Armitage’s choreography also seems improved.  In the park, Armitage frequently clustered the cast in the center of the stage.  This stasis was inappropriate to the play’s kinetic spirit.  When the movement finally opened up, it seemed genuinely random.  When staging dances that, within the fictional world of the play, are supposed to be spontaneous, the trick is to create the illusion of chaos while preserving the power of coordinated and sometimes unified movement.  While Armitage still employs her clusters, she seems to break from them earlier in this staging.  There also seems to be greater coordination to the chaos – this may simply be due to the fact that the indoor venue focuses the audience’s attention. 

 

Armitage and Director Diane Paulus deserve great credit for expanding and improving the production’s audience participation.  I assumed that this element would be diminished when the production moved from the Delacorte’s amphitheatre to a larger theatre with a proscenium stage and a mezzanine.  I was in the nosebleed seats and had no expectation that cast members would ever reach me.  Very early on cast members ran up a staircase adjoining the stage and arrived in the mezzanine to involve those of us in the cheap seats. 

 

A great accomplishment of both the Central Park and Broadway productions is that the play’s interaction with the audience and communal spirit seem sincere – they do not feel like a theme park recreation of 60s counter culture.

 

Some of the best songs from the play are in a hallucinatory sequence in Act II.  They are “Walking in Space,” “Yes, I’s Finished on Y’alls Farmlands,” “Four Score and Seven Years Ago/Abie Baby,”  “Give Up All Desires,” “Three-Five-Zero-Zero,” “What a Piece of Work is Man,” and “How Dare They Try.”  The final two songs of the sequence are the beginning of the play’s powerful crystallization of the human cost of war.  The former sets the words of Hamlet’s speech to music:

 

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals

 

The latter song is a reprise of “Walking in Space,” which includes the words “how dare they try to end this beauty,” the beauty being the piece of work that is man.  “The Flesh Failures/Let The Sun Shine,” which ends the play and climaxes this sequence of young life sacrificed to war, is riveting.

 

One of the things that makes this sequence so effective is that it contains very little dialogue.  Much of the book consists of thoughtless, adolescent mockery of authority in general, parental authority, education, the middle class, and patriotism.  This was not nuanced political and social criticism in 1967, and it is even sillier now that we are half a century past the conformity and conservatism of the Eisenhower era (yes, the religious right is a major political force, yes our last president was conservative and led the country into a disastrous war, but we still live in the age of Will and Grace, rap music, and -- God help us -- reality television).  The counter-culture/New Left’s dismissal of the horrors of communism (which can no longer be dismissed now that the files of many communist governments are open) is not only silly, it is chilling.  At one point Claude’s mother (Megan Lawrence) speaks of the true secrets of Red China, and is made to seem ridiculous.  Now no one can deny that in 1967 the Chinese Communists were carrying out the Cultural Revolution in which anyone who dared not to conform was humiliated, jailed, sent to forced labor, tortured, killed, or all of the above.  Among the possessions Claude gives away before reporting for military duty is a Soviet flag.  Yes, United States foreign policy was and is in large part very bad; yes, in 1967 segregation had just been ended legally, and the new laws were not yet fully implemented.  But, as John Le Carré said, the Cold War was the war of “the very bad against the much worse.”

 

To be fair, there may be an element of self-criticism to Hair.  Claude’s parents point out that they are financially supporting him in his rebellion, and his father sincerely laments that his son doesn’t love him.  The song “Easy to Be Hard” contains the lyrics

 

How can people have no feelings
How can they ignore their friends
Easy to be proud
Easy to say no

And especially people
Who care about strangers
Who care about evil
And social injustice


Do you only
Care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
I need a friend

 

On the other hand, the play lets selfish and hurtful radicals off the hook pretty quickly: the Tribe member Berger (Will Swenson), who has just behaved callously, repents and atones immediately following the song.

All-in-all, the book by Rado and Ragni is a revue of sketches with the thinnest of plots grafted onto it.  It is interesting that the strongest element in the show (the music) was created by someone who was not a member of the counter culture – MacDermott, who said of himself, “"I had short hair, a wife, and, at that point, four children, and I lived on Staten Island."

The cast is energetic, engaging, and extraordinarily attractive -- in the summer production, almost uniformly so.  In that incarnation there were two things people were not free to be: out of shape and less then remarkably good-looking.  The only male member of the cast who did not have a flat stomach was Andrew Kober, who played (and plays in the current production) Claude’s conservative father and a dowdy, but well-meaning, middle-aged woman whom the Tribe dubs Margaret Mead.  Kober reveals his paunch when he reveals Margaret is a man.  Yes, only squares can be round.  Since Hair celebrates sensuality and sexual freedom, it is consistent for it to appeal to the libido.  But having only one paunchy character actor amidst a cast made up of actors who could easily pass for models bespeaks a lookist conformism.  Apparently, someone involved in the production noticed this bit of hypocrisy: a token heavyset woman has been added to the tribe – she has no lines or solos.

 

One issue on which our era is clearly more progressive than that of Hair is homosexuality.  While it is said (and demonstrated) that Claude is in love or lust with both Sheila (Caissie Levy)  and Berger (Will Swenson), when Woof (Bryce Ryness) confesses he’s obsessed with Mick Jagger, he offers the disclaimer that he is not a homosexual.  Fluid bisexuality is cool; homosexuality is not.

 

The cast are all decent singers (some people did occasionally sound flat to me) and decent actors.  The two leads of the play are Berger and Claude.  As Berger, Swenson is theatrical, uninhibited, and energetic.  However, while I’m pretty certain that Ragni and Rado and much of the audience in 67 and today find Berger’s rebellious irreverence attractive, to me he is a raging asshole.  Swenson so enthusiastically embraces the character that I ended up disliking him intensely.  As I said before, Creel injects a little bit of Berger’s wise-assery and theatricality into the character of Claude, who was played with innocence by Groff. Creel is much more charismatic and energetic.  However I did miss Groff’s innocent sincerity when Claude, torn over whether or not to dodge the draft, sings “Where do I go.”  In the park this song was riveting; on Broadway it lost something. I was very disappointed when I saw Patina Renea Miller who played Dionne (who leads “Aquarius” and the show-stopper “White Boys”) had been replaced – she was stunning over the summer.  But Sasha Allen, who has taken over the role, is equally powerful.  At emotional moments Cassie Levy has the annoying habit of choking up her voice as if she’s trying really hard to cry.  However, she does belt out “Easy to be Hard.”  Kober and Lawrence (who, in addition to Claude’s mother, plays a Buddhist monk) are skilled comic character actors.

 

Both in the park and on Broadway, during the curtain call, the cast invites the audience on stage to dance to encores of “Hair” and “Let the Sun Shine In.”  In the larger Broadway theatre, people in the mezzanine are able to get down to the stage, and in act of egalitarianism much in keeping with the play’s spirit, one of the leads (Swenson) goes up to the cheap seats to dance with those seated there.  It is this moment that is the joyful communal experience many of us wish theatre to be.

 

 

 
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