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True Liberation

by B.A. Nilsson on May 5, 2011

Hair
Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermot, choreography by Karole Armitage, directed by Diane Paulus Proctors, through May 8

Call it a theatrical happening or a political screed—Hair is a late-’60s artifact that lacks a coherent book and sports a poorly crafted score, yet, as the revival production now playing at Proctors Theatre demonstrates, it surges with its own compelling energy and defines the term zeitgeist.

From an off-Broadway production in 1967 to its Broadway debut a year later, Hair put the face of the hippie movement in front of a middle-class audience during a time when theater had the power to shock. And thanks to this show, a slew of taboos was met head-on and so thoroughly bested that little is left to seem shocking.

Among the show’s many list songs are paeans to sexual practices (“Sodomy”), racial prejudice (“Colored Spade”) and institutional anonymity (“Initials”), celebrations of interracial sexual potency (“Black Boys” and “White Boys”) and patriotism (“Don’t Put It Down”). They’re rawly written but they still have an edge, honed by the combination of propulsive score and the fantastic energy of the performers.

But the songs that drive the message of love—the need to pursue connectedness in spite of the ease of disaffection—give the show emotional weight. “Aquarius,” which opens the show, has become anthemic, and Phyre Hawkins’s performance of it was stellar. “I Believe in Love” and “Easy to be Hard,” both sung by Caren Lyn Tackett, contrast two views of pursuing a difficult relationship; she also leads the cast in “Good Morning Starshine,” a number that escaped into popular airplay, thanks to the likes of Oliver and Andy Williams.

What resonates most deeply today is the agony of enduring a boss’ war, especially when you’re eligible for conscription. Hair climaxes with a be-in during which the men add their draft cards to a burning barrel. Claude (Paris Remillard), however, is conflicted, torn between seeking approval from his parents and from the Tribe, as the show’s company is called.

Forty-some years later, we’re again embroiled in an unjust war, but our political leaders learned from the likes of Hair to avoid a draft, thus avoiding the degree of public confrontation for its illegal occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq that the Vietnam War provoked.

Kids of the Hair era had a sense of community, however flawed, such as we won’t see again in the age of the pseudo-community of social networking.

On a smaller scale, any long-running show develops its own sense of community, and original Hair cast member Lorrie Davis captured the feeling of that production in her 1973 book Letting Down My Hair. I suspect a similar narrative could be developed by everyone involved in the 2009 Broadway revival, from which the touring production developed (to the point of including some of the Broadway cast).

The sense of togetherness is palpable, and choreographer Karole Armitage either takes advantage of it or created it in the first place by placing many of the cast in impressively compromising positions. Yet there’s an innocence about these characters, on the order of puppies discovering what it’s like to be in heat.

As Berger, Steel Burkhardt starts off the show by stripping to a loincloth and mingling with startled audience members (note to uptight men in steel-gray suits: don’t sit in the front couple of rows). Burkhardt is thoroughly convincing as a high school-aged freak (as we called them then) whose long hair symbolizes his anarchic rebellion.

Josh Lamon superbly played the plum roles of Dad (a square of clichéd proportion) and Margaret Mead, the latter giving him the show’s biggest and most hilarious surprise. Nicole Lewis’ turn as Abraham Lincoln was delightfully manic, and Lee Zarrett juggled a number of comic roles with impressive versatility.

There really wasn’t a weak spot in the entire cast and all of the leads, including Darius Nichols, Matt DeAngelis, Kacie Sheik and Kaitlin Kiyan were superb.

Keyboardist David Truskinoff led a musical ensemble that included a quintet of local hires, who earned a significant thumbs-up from Truskinoff during opening night.

Yes, the cast gets naked, an almost unremarkable event that fortunately has none of the censorious controversy that befell The Full Monty at this same theater a few years back.

Hair also works hard in to break the fourth wall. The cast mingles often with the audience—per tradition, we’re handed handbills for the be-in—and, although we’re not placed under arrest before intermission (per the 1968 production), we do get invited onstage to share a reprise of “Let the Sun Shine In.” I’m far too inhibited for such things, but my teenage daughter eagerly ran onstage and danced and sang and waved her arms, and now insists she’s eager to join the next march on Washington, D.C.

Hair continues to impart a potent message.
Hair [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
Hair [The New Broadway Cast Recording]