When we see fringe vests, bell bottoms, peace signs, and flowers crowning someone’s hair, we all understand its implications. The hippie movement became a fundamental part of American culture in the ‘60s—a time when the baby boomers were gathering their own voices outside of their parents’ conservative generation of moderation and manners. It was a liberal movement that embraced the pop-cultural birth of experimental rock ‘n’ roll, drugs, and passionate language and debate. Yet, beneath its surface was something greater; the voices of the movement weren’t like their parents, who supported WWII. Many of the boomers were protesting Vietnam, a war that in their mind was senselessly killing innocent soldiers and civilians. It was one of the first great challenges of our country—to allow people of all races, etnicities and backgrounds to challenge what it means to be patriotic.
Of the time, rock music was providing a soundtrack that literally looked picture perfect against the backdrop of chaos—a mess of war and of people arguing for and against it. Folks were singing about the world in ways that mattered. Documentaries were being made. And guerrilla theatre, too, was catching on. Art was becoming the outlet to express revolutionary sociopolitical change.
In the fall following 1967’s Summer of Love, the musical “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” made its off-Broadway debut. With book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, the show captured the essence of the hippie counterculture, the sexual revolution and peace movement. It officially opened on Broadway in 1968 and went on to win a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award throughout the years of its numerous revivals worldwide, as well as a Grammy for its soundtrack.
This New Year’s Eve Cape Fear Theatre Arts will be showcasing its own rendition of “Hair” at Thalian Hall. Directed by Justin Smith, it’s the first time the show—which is known for its controversial nudity scene—will take the stage at Thalian in 30 years. Smith was part of City Stage’s show a few years back; though, it’s his first time directing “Hair.”
“When [Chiaki Ito and I] asked Nick [Gray] and Rachael [Moser] to take over City Stage [last spring], it was always part of the deal that we would do the New Year’s show every year,” Smith says of turning over City Stage’s reins. “We have a short list of shows every year for this slot; ‘Hair’ has been on that list for a couple of years now.”
Its message—love, light, peace, tolerance, hope—is one that Smith always has gravitated toward. Yet, its relevance today still remains important.
“It’s hard taking on a show that so many people have notions about,” Smith reveals. “I have tried to honor the spirit of the show, while creating a different twist on the plot than people who know the show well would expect.”
For instance, one of its characters, Chrissy, who usually only makes a one-song appearance, shows up in Smith’s version as a constant thread. She is a modern-day soldier who receives a letter from her grandmother, which transports her back to the ‘60s.
“Her grandmother is the character of Jeannie and is pregnant,” Smith explains. “Usually, Jeannie is played as a drug-addled mom-to-be, but in our version she is much more heroic or at least mother-hen of the tribe.”
The creative liberties Smith has taken with the show has generated more depth within the story without overshadowing the spirit of the show. Its message still shines through: “It’s a group of young adults, standing up for what they believe in an organized and passionate way,” Smith says. “The show tackles the environment, war, protests, and love. I’d love to see a modern show tackle those issues.”
With a cast made up of Paul Teal, Caitlin Becka, Morganna Bridgers, Sam Robison, Patrick Basquill, Khawon Porter, LaRaisha Burnnette, and many more tribe members, the energy they bring to the show is intense. According to Smith, they make it look effortless. “This show is really bringing out something new and different from each of them,” he says.
Musical director Ito is leading the way on keys with her band Justin Hoke and Gary Steele on guitar, Nick Loeber on bass and Rob Murphrey on drums. “I trust them implicitly,” she says. “With the exception of Nick, the rest of the guys are part of my band, LaCi (LaRaisha is our vocalist).”
Songs like “Electric Blues,” “Good Morning Starshine,” “I’m Black/Colored Spade,” and “Hashish” will be heard as representation of the show’s controversy with language, nudity, drug use, and political undertones. “Of course I like The Fifth Dimension’s version of ‘Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,’” Ito tells. “That’s the song I remember the most, which isn’t on the soundtrack. I try not to listen to the soundtrack too much because I don’t want it to influence my interpretation of the songs. For example, I know I take a lot of songs at different tempos. Also, there are so many versions of Aquarius, that I decided to do my own little arrangement.”
Another of Ito’s favorites is “Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In.” Though it may seem uplifting, the reality in its lyrics begs for change.
“Don’t get too comfortable in your sheltered daily life when there’s so much destruction and killing in the world,” Ito iterates of its message. “Stop the killing, stop the discrimination. Focus on the light, love and peace. This show debuted in 1967 and the message is still as relevant as it was when it was written.”
The 20-plus cast has been led by choreographer Jason Aycock, who only had seen the film version of “Hair” before agreeing to do the show. Since, the professional clogger has been watching every production he can find online.
“This is not a show that I would have originally said was in my wheelhouse, as far as choreography goes,” Aycock quips, “but I’ve really enjoyed working on it. I tried to look at what other productions have brought to the show, as well as lots of historical video from Woodstock and ‘60’s protest rallies, to really draw lots of familiar movement.”
He is focusing on the strong current of love to form 90 percent of the freestyle. He’s also choroegraphed with movements from the ‘50s and ‘60s. “They talk about doing the twist in the show, and there is a great kind of early ‘60s musical flair to the number ‘Going Down,’ so you’ll see a lot of throwbacks within that number,” Aycock adds. “I kept it all within the time period. No twerking.”
Costume designer Sarah Holcomb is approaching the show with a lot of visual research. From online historical pictures to period movies to finding old sewing patterns that her roommate gifted her, she also leaned on her mother about the popular fashions during middle and high school.
“Most of the pieces are an amalgamation of things donated by the cast, things City Stage had used in previous shows, and the aid of Debbie Scheu and her amazing inventory of costumes,” Holcomb says.
She filled in the looks with the help of local thrift stores and by hand-crafting all the accessories. Holcomb wants audiences to believe the tribe’s support of each other and their beliefs, and for their cohesiveness to be apparent— as if the looks were made by the people,” she explains, “looks [that are] crocheted, hand stitched, or personally embellished. . . . The fashions then were about showing a freeness to the characters and what they stood for. I didn’t want everyone too harsh or too soft. They needed that moveability to dance with a watery, calm flowiness, but the durability to still look like they won’t back down. While they may look, move and speak carefree, they still have a message that they want you to hear.”
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Dec. 30, 1/2-4, 8-11, 15-17, 7:30 p.m. or Sundays, 3 p.m.
Special New Year’s Eve Gala, 12/31: Tickets: $125 (incl. show, hors d’oeuvre, open bar, dancing, and karaoke)