Review: “Hair”

RECOMMENDED

Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.
When: through June 29
Tickets: $38-$43
Phone: 773-409-4125

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Leave it to American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli to devise an iconoclastic way to present “Hair,” the “American Tribal Love Rock Musical” with a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot. Rather than staging the 1968 Broadway version or its tamer more recent variants, he’s returned to the 1967 original first produced by New York Shakespeare Festival founder Joseph Papp at his then-new Public Theater space in New York’s East Village. And he’s tapped co-creator Rado to help him revise and shape the material for this incarnation.

The result is unlike any “Hair” you’re likely to recall. Rough and raw, the show is set in an East Village warehouse, realized in gritty detail by scenic designer Keith Pitts and lighting designer Brian Hoehne. The hippies squatting here (shades of “Rent”) sleep on a couple of grubby mattresses and cavort on old office desks and barrels, often observed by nightstick-wielding cops through industrial multi-pane windows that definitely don’t let the sunshine in. To make the audience part of the action, the theater seats have been removed and replaced with uncomfortable mismatched chairs and a couch or two.

The revised script has more dialogue, less humor (at least as I recall) and a very strong emphasis on sex, drugs, racial discrimination and opposition to the Vietnam War. Sheila (Ella Raymont), who’s hung up on both Berger (Sky Seals) and Claude (Zach Kenney), returns from a protest march in Washington, D.C., and describes what it was like to be gassed. In the long (too long) drug-induced hallucinatory sequence, we see the horrors of war played out with miniature plastic soldiers and such. It seems Claude really does burn his draft card, though he agonizes just as much about whether or not to let himself be drafted. Palpable rage fuels the songs of Hud (Aaron Holland) and some of the other African Americans; even the dueling duets “Black Boys” and “White Boys” have sharp edges.

Still, debts to the 1968 Broadway show include the humanization of Claude, who now just thinks he’s from Mars and Manchester, England, whereas he’s a New Jersey boy, and the addition of “Let the Sun Shine In,” which I’m pretty sure wasn’t in the 1967 original but is essential. Some of the other songs — there were about 30, more than in other musicals of the time — are in different places, which can be a little off-putting but occasionally deepens their meaning.

If ATC’s production is your introduction to “Hair,” you may be a little confused. The tribal nature of the musical comes through loud and clear from the start, but the plot, such as it is, and the principal players are slow to emerge. The development and denouement also could use some clarification.

And the “love” of the subtitle seems to be missing. This is a nastier bunch than I remember from previous renditions — or from the real hippies I knew in the late sixties. Seals’ resentful, sarcastic Berger is mean to his girlfriend, Shelia, revels in outrageous antics, and cruelly ridicules Hubert (Chris Nugent) and Margaret Mead (Jane Strauss), elderly visitors trying to understand the younger generation. (On Broadway, these characters were impersonated by tribe members, which cast the incident in a different light, as did the fact that rather than flashing breasts, MM revealed that she was a man in drag.) Raymont’s Sheila is entirely caught up in self-righteous political activism. Claude is self-absorbed but dealing with a very real dilemma, making him the most sympathetic of the three. Woof (Christian Libonati), who’s grappling with his homosexuality, and Jeanie (Mary Hollis Inboden), who keeps popping and purveying pills and other banned substances despite her pregnancy, are more sad than anything else.

Musically, the four-piece band is at its best when playing acoustically. When amplified, it tends to overpower the singers, except for the choral numbers, a few of which are beautiful. Unfortunately, on opening night, the band and performers were out of sync now and then. In addition, some of the cast members are better actors than singers. I was especially disappointed with Sheila’s solos, “Easy to Be Hard” and “Good Morning Sunshine,” because they are among the loveliest songs. Holland’s Hud, on the other hand, has a fine voice, as do most of the African Americans in the ensemble.

As for the costumes, they’ve been problematic for decades. Designer Brittany Dee Bodley’s getups aren’t as cartoonish as some, so the characters don’t look like late-1960s caricatures, but they’re not quite right, either, and neither is the way the actors move. Also odd is the comparative lack of … well, hair. The afros are in place, but the long, flowing locks for the white men and women are in short supply. Can’t have it all, I guess.