THEATER REVIEW: “Hair” @ Beck Center by Roy Berko

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 2/25

In December 1968, about 50 Lorain County Community College students flew to New York. Some in the clean-scrubbed conservative group, coming from a campus void of political turmoil, had never traveled as far afield as downtown Cleveland. The first play they saw on their Big Apple adventure was Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.

Yes, Hair, the James Rado/Gerome Ragni/Galt MacDermot hippie, counterculture, sexual revolution musical that introduced rock and roll to Broadway, and shocked many theatergoers with nudity, swearing, anti-Vietnam protest, sexuality, drug usage and irreverence for the American flag.

The students were seated in the first couple of rows of the theater and received lots of attention from the young actors and were invited onto the stage for the “Be-In” finale, which found them dancing on a Broadway stage.

When the tour of the show came to Cleveland, some of the students were at the April 25, 1971 performance of the show when a bomb exploded in front of Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre. Yes, Hair was a controversial show.

Hair is often referred to as the ending bookend of the era known as the Golden Age of Broadway. The first true book musical, Oklahoma (1943), set the format for what is known as the American musical, and the Age of Aquarius musical (1968) ushered in major changes to that format, showcased by a racially integrated cast, taking on a serious topic, and adding rock music to the genre’s lexicon.

The script was time-specific, furthering the concept that theater is representative of the era from which it comes. Hair is the 1960s, a time of political activity, flower children, drugs, long-haired hippies, bohemian life style, free love, tie-dyed shirts and bellbottom pants, rebellion against tradition family values and conservative beliefs, and the preaching of making love/not war.

Hair tells the tale of friends Claude, Berger and Sheila, and their “tribe” as they struggle to balance their youthful lives with rebellion against the Vietnamese War and draft conscription. It is also a reflection of the tidal waves of change that were ripping the country apart.

Even the theatrical staging was a change from tradition with scaffolds to climb, nudity, breaking of the third wall with cast members flowing over the apron of the stage to interact with the audience, and dance and sing down the aisles. A Be-In with cast and audience dancing together on and off-stage were nightly occurrences. This was definitely not OklahomaMy Fair Lady or Annie Get Your Gun.

The score was eclectic and electric. “Aquarius” placed the “world” in a dream-like/flower power state. “Sodomy” gave words to free love. “Hashish” introduced the topic of drugs. “Colored Spade,” Black Boys” and “White Boys” put black oppression front and center. “Hare Krishna” assaulted western organized religion. “Where Do I Go” showcases the angst of growing up in the era. “The War” shocks reality, while “Good Morning Sunshine” opens new paths. And on and on, it goes, selling its ideas, confronting realities, challenging what was and making a case for what might be.

The Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre Program production, is vital and dynamic, and has talent overload. It is well-directed by Victoria Bussert. Choreographer Martin Céspedes wisely has the large cast mostly moving, rather than doing complex coordinated choreography. His visual creations fit the music and create the desired effects. It’s so exciting to see real dancers on stage, well instructed.

The vocalizations are outstanding. The chorus sounds full and engulfing. It’s impressive that the entire cast stayed in character throughout the production, creating the needed reality.

Sam Columbus (Woof) nails “Sodomy,” Chandler Smith (Claude) plays “Manchester, England” for appropriate tongue-in-cheek laughs. He, Olivia Kaufmann (Sheila), Veronica Otim (Dionne) and the chorus put the right emotion into “Eyes Look Your Last.” MacKenzie Wright (Jeanie) nicely interprets “Air,” singing meanings not just words. Courtney Hausman (Crissy) is “geek” delightful in her rendition of “Frank Mills.”

At times there are some strays from the show being era-correct. “Fu*k Trump,” “Black Lives Matter,” “No Way Sanctuary,” and “Build Kindness Not Walls” signs, videos and chants may be an attempt to make the issues the issues of today, but modernization is not the purpose of Hair. The high-energy music interpretation, more 2018 than 1960, sometimes takes over the intense, flower-power rock sound. Not using ’60s clothing and hair styles distracts, but aren’t major issues.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: See Hair? Of course! The overall effect will leave you “Walking on Air,” asking “What a Piece of Work is Man!” and cause you to exit humming, “I Believe in Love.” Bravo!

Hair runs at Beck Center for the Arts through Sun 2/25. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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