Hair | New Line Theatre

theat_hair_sm.jpgHair still has so much relevance. See it to celebrate, to mourn, and finally to celebrate again.

 

 

 

We starve-look /At one another /Short of breath /Walking proudly in our winter coats
Wearing smells from laboratories /Facing a dying nation /Of moving paper fantasy
Listening for the new told lies /With supreme visions of lonely tunes. ("Let the Sunshine In")

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Hair at New Line Theatre is unexpectedly, beautifully, joyfully, mournfully, tragically relevant again. Gerome Ragni and James Rado have turned out to be poet-prophets and their book and lyrics are given life by Galt MacDermot’s eclectic rock score.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising. After all, we may be "noble in reason," but we’re not particularly reasonable much of the time; hence, we find ourselves between Iraq and a hard place, just like we were 40 years ago: mired in an endless war under leaders whose only goal was/is winning. Not saying, "We made a mistake, so let’s get out before we do any more damage" which, of course, is finally what it came to in Southeast Asia, but beating the bad guys. Just like in western movies. Just like in sports. That’s the American way, or so we’ve been taught.

Hair says it doesn’t have to be that way. We have dignity and integrity by virtue of our beings. We can’t know whether God (if there is God) loves us, but we can love each other. We can stop the madness by encouraging our own fine madness, and the young can lead us. But we didn’t listen then, and the young now are more worried about helicopter parents than military choppers. With a volunteer army, most young people can avoid military service without penalty. Not so in ’68, and that is a significant difference from 2008.

The plot, such as it is, involves a group of hippies who hang in Central Park smoking weed, having sex in a various combinations, taking digs at all kinds of authority figures, and getting off on being alive. Also important to the males in the group is staying alive. They hold a ritual draft card burning, but one member of the tribe Claude Bukowski (Todd Schaefer) refrains. Despite his rebel posturing, he cooperates with the system instead of trying to co-opt it, and he ends up in uniform, just one of a multitude of boys and men (and a few women) back in the Vietnam era who will be sent to kill and perhaps die for reasons mostly unknown.

Hair deals with a whole raft of serious social issues and ills. The cover of the program lists some of them: politics, war, race, drugs, violence, religion, power, sexuality, justice, obscenity, etc. etc. Despite those themes, though, I’ve seldom seen an audience have more fun at a show. Cast members wander through the audience chatting before the official start time (a Scott Miller device used now and then in his productions) and handing out daisies. At the end, they come out to find dance partners. It feels, however briefly, like "the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars /and peace will guide the planets/ and love will steer the stars."

The show itself is deceptively good. When I was very young, I liked the weird lyrics, now I realize how profound they are. Ragni and Rado prove that preaching isn’t necessary to convey moral truths. Catchy tunes with blunt (and often politically incorrect) titles: Hashish, Sodomy, Colored Spade, Three-Five-Zero-Zero and Easy to be Hard (which sounds like a double entendre but isn’t) let the tribe express their beliefs, frustrations, fears and joys.

Thanks to "The Fifth Dimension," "Aquarius" and "Let the Sunshine In" have entered the lexicon of popular music. The first is an anthem of hope; the second, a paean to despair, ending on an ambiguous note. I’m not sure any song in musical theater has been so misunderstood.

The show is well-cast and in another of Miller’s trademarks, not chosen because they have the best voices or the most conventional looks, but because they are able to inhabit the characters and make them real. The only reservation I have about a bit of pivotal casting is Ryan Ferris-Hanson as Sheila. Her voice is monotonous and she doesn’t seem fully engaged. I get that Sheila is ambivalent about the way she’s living, but she should be a stronger presence, since she has two significant solos.

Standouts include John Sparger as the leader of the tribe, Berger (reprising his performance from the 2000 production), and Schaefer as the doomed Bukowski. Zachary Allen Farmer is a tribe member, but his finest moment is as a woman honeymooner in Central Park who is curious about the group and seems to view them as another attraction, like the zoo animals, while her "husband" (Todd Micali) fears them. It’s a hilarious bit.

Most of the cast are strong singers, especially Khnemu Menu-Ra (Hud) Nikki Glenn, Talichia Noah, and Marcy Wiegert. The technique of using hand microphones instead of miking each singer allows mikes to be used as props (usually in a suggestive way) but it does occasionally make the sound a bit uneven. I tend to forget to mention the New Line Band under the direction of Chris Petersen in reviews, but that’s a compliment. They are so good, and so organic to the show that I forget they’re there. So, here’s your shout out guys; you deserve it.

Others not mentioned above who add a lot of talent to the mix are Aaron Lawson (Woof), Robin Michelle Berger (Jeanie) and tribe members Wayne (Easter), Rachel (Hanks), and Terry (Love). Characters who don’t have names assigned are billed in the song list by their own given names.

Costume design must have been a blast for Thom Crain, and actor Todd Schaefer did double duty as the designer of the spectacular set. The light board operator is kept busy with Kenneth Zinkl’s frequent mood shifts, and when the stars literally do come out for Good Morning Starshine, it’s a memorable moment. Director Miller keeps a firm hand on the helm, but to his credit, it never shows.

I’m happy that New Line chose to produce Hair because I’d never seen it live; I am sorry that it can’t just be a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the show but that it still has so much relevance. See it to celebrate, to mourn, and finally to celebrate again for there is hope and light and no matter how hard "they" try, they cannot "end this beauty." | Andrea Braun

 

Hair runs through October 18, 2008, at the Washington University South Campus Theatre (the old CBC High School). Tickets are $20 for general admission, with reduced rates for students and seniors. For more information and to make reservations, visit http://www.newlinetheatre.com/ or call Metrotix, 314-534-1111.

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