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Theater Review: Hair still grows as it revives in Chicago

March 16, 2011

The company of the national Hair tour. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Bill Beard
Theater Critic

I spent the 1960s teaching theater in New England colleges, where many of my students were seriously involved in the development of the whole counter-culture of the anti-war, pro-peace-and-love movement; a phenomenon then taking over on campuses everywhere. The long hair, the tie-dyed look, the sit-ins, the flower power and the heavy smell of incense-plus-who-knew-what, the whole new “Hippie” culture…these were all part of the general student body experience.

The scene was set. So it was only natural that when Hair opened on Broadway in 1968 (1967 off Broadway), the music and lyrics of Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot’s American Tribal Love-Rock Musical became not only the sensational new pop music form for a young mass audience, but also the philosophical/political foundation for a whole new generation.

It was a very special show, for a very specific time; a powerful artistic and cultural statement with literally revolutionary impact. Very few American musical theater pieces have ever had such compelling force and enduring strength. Its open and blatant use of formerly forbidden subject matter, like pot-smoking, free love and sex, and draft dodging and draft card-burning, opened a liberating door to young America. And things have never been the same.

So, when I heard that Hair was being revived on Broadway in 2009, I wondered how it could possibly still prove relevant. After all, today’s “kids” from early teens and younger through college and beyond, are not only comfortable with, but simply just take for granted the things that were daringly revolutionary then: drug use, sexual freedom, nudity, pacifism, environmentalism, astrological spiritualism, racial struggles…they’re just part of our national fabric.

The company of Hair. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Well, after seeing the new National Tour production of the very successful ’09 revival, now playing at Chicago’s Ford Center/Oriental Theatre, I am still not convinced it was all quite worth it. Wait now…I am still in love with most of the music. I mean, who can resist the grand-opening anthem “Aquarius,” especially as delivered by the gorgeous Phyre Hawkins? Or the uplifting “Good Morning, Sunshine,” led by Caren Lyn Tackett’s spirited Sheila (though with the occasional tone question)? Or the glorious harmony of the finale chorus of “Let The Sunshine In”? And of course, the rhythmic cadence and driving beat of the title song, “Hair.”

This is basically a heavy-duty show for the men; and even though the character of Berger, here played by Steel Burkhardt, dominates much of the show, and pushes the limits of raw crudeness, it remains for the other three male leads to give us the balance of the piece. Boston’s Matt DeAngelis gives the character of Woof some of his own gentle Gemini optimism and spirituality; and Darius Nichols brings a rich and powerful voice to his strong portrayal of the militant Hud.
But this is really Claude’s story. Confused and torn between his understanding and sympathy for the dreams of peace and freedom, and the opposing sense of duty and love of country, he struggles with the decision between joining his tribal friends in burning their draft cards or reporting and facing possible induction into the military. He wishes he could just be “invisible.”

Steel Burkhardt and Paris Remillard in the national tour of Hair. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Played by the talented Paris Remillard, who claims that he “entered this world nonviolently with the sun in Aquarius and the moon in Aries,” there is an honesty and charm in his portrayal of the role of Claude that seems completely believable; invoking sympathy and acceptance from his audience, particularly in the powerful closing number of Act I, “Where do I go?”

This is a strong cast, many of whom are from the original 2009 New York cast. They indeed bring this significant icon of the rock musical theater to vibrant life, much as it was appreciated in the rebellious ’60s.

But frankly, this is not the’ 60s; it’s 2011. This 21st century society may have an abundance of things to rebel against, but they are essentially far more grave and grim than pot smoking, sexual freedom and the fear of conscription. The original Hair attacked the taboos of the period; and frankly, today’s youth are living the resulting benefits of all those “poo-pooed taboos.” But long hair and nudity will not accomplish much of a statement against today’s problems. Perhaps it is time for a new kind of revolution. Where are the Ragni and Rados of 2011?

However, even though the rambling plotline seems almost inane today, the score is great; and this is still a terrific piece of nostalgia; an authentic picture of a past era. So do go see it. It plays through this weekend, March 20, at Chicago’s Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre (phone 800-775-2000 or go online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com).

But if you do go…go to enjoy some of the best rock theater music of the last 50 years, and not expecting a renewal of some passionate revolutionary inspiration.

From the March 16-22, 2011, issue

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