Cape Fear Theatre Arts continues their New Year’s tradition of putting on a blockbuster musical at Thalian Hall. This year they selected “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot. Directed by Justin Smith with musical direction by Chiaki Ito, it’s a hell of a great way to start the 2015
There are moments in a collective cultural experience when work emerges that seem to capture the essence of something greater than what had been expressed before. These are pivotal moments in which art and culture are forever changed. What ripples out on a societal level is slower but no less profound. Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”changed the direction of modern poetry; Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire” did the same for modern drama. Without a doubt, “Hair” is a profound and pivotal moment in the history of the American musical. Frequently credited as the first rock musical or rock opera, it paved the way for “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “A Chorus Line,” “Rent,” and most of what Disney has produced on 42nd Street in the last 18 years.
“Hair” originally opened in 1967 at the Public Theater and has been in an almost continuous state of writing evolution since. Songs have been added, subtracted, rewritten, likewise with plot elements. For example, the film-version of “Hair” consists of a different plot than that of the stage show. The show moved to Broadway in 1968 and, in theory, the references of the show—like “This is 1968, Dearies—not 1948!” levitating the Pentagon with Abbie Hoffman and Mohamad Ali’s statements—are solidified. Though “Hair” is a period piece, it is far from irrelevant. Perhaps what is simultaneously most captivating and disturbing about the show is just how pertinent it still is.
Act I can best be described as a “Be-In” in the East Village in New York City, 1968. Berger (Paul Teal)—a merry prankster of the loud, spoiled variety—and his friend, Claude (Sam Robison), are the nominal hosts, along with Hud (Khawon Porter) and Woof (Patrick Basquill). Though Teal is clearly having a great time, enjoying life without his pants onstage, it is actually Basquill’s Woof who “turns on” the audience by passing out sugar cubes and reciting a litany invocating and deriding figures from The Pope to his younger brother; segue into the infamous song “Sodomy,” a hymn to the beauty of all forms of sexual exploration as celebrated by Woof and the tribe. Basquill has a good rock ‘n’ roll voice and absolutely no inhibition onstage (or anywhere else), so he’s sort of a natural for this song. What I really enjoy are the little details that Basquill snuck into his performance, ranging from eating and smoking various props to subtle interactions with other tribe members.
Notice insofar it’s a guy-heavy group onstage. Yep, this is pre-second-wave feminism. Of the principal characters, the two women who actually get to speak the most are Sheila (Morgana Bridgers) and Jeanie (Caitlin Becka). Jeanie, we learn is pregnant with Claude’s child—so, of course, she’s a total drag and a nag, right? Right. Though the women of the tribe circle around her to help her sit, stand and do stairs safely, the constancy of this concern and rallying is really well done and underscores the men’s complete oblivion to her and her plight. Bridgers as Sheila is beautiful, smart and politically active. She clearly sees the potential that a movement on this scale could have to affect real and lasting change—not just get high and lay about. Given half a chance to shut her down emotionally (Berger) and politically (Claude), the men leap at it. Frustrated and pained but not beaten, the audience learns the most about Sheila’s inner resources and this difficult foursome through “Easy to Be Hard.” The song was made famous by Three Dog Night, but Bridgers’ understated yet palpable distress cuts deeper than expected.
A less prominent female character is Dionne, portrayed by LaRaisha Burnette. If you haven’t had the joy of hearing Burnette sing, buy tickets now because her voice alone is worth the price of admission. She’s got a set of lungs that manage to combine the lead singer in a ‘50s girl group with a modern female pop diva.
If there is a surprise for the audience in this show, it is Khawon Porter as Hud. It is almost impossible to gaze away from him. Sporting an afro that must be seen to be believed, dance moves that won’t quit, and a growling voice that radiates deep within the words he’s singing, he is positively effervescent onstage. From “Colored Spade” and “Ain’t Got No” to “Yes, I’s Finished,” he flips the script on lyrics most thought they understood. He brings a deeper, new twist on songs that must be experienced.
Where Act I is—for the most part—a pretty joyous occasion, Act II is the real meat and potatoes of the ‘60s. It is largely a manifestation of a hallucination Claude is having, which culminates with his arrival at the Army induction center. Claude is an interesting and troubling part of this show. Written to be the all-American boy and the more romantic, he still winds up dominating more of the script and stage time than Berger. Robison sings the part beautifully and embodies with breathtaking accuracy a selfish, self-absorbed, Hamlet-like character, who is terrified of decision and action. Much like Robison’s casting as Cliff in “Cabaret” last year changed the interpretation of the story, by virtue of his age, a similar but more pronounced phenomenon takes place in “Hair.” My date holds that since most of the audience for this show is over 60, and Robison is still younger than them, the casting works.
The end of the show is a tableau with a strong and striking visual depiction of sending children—barely 18 years old, with no maturity or life experience—to fight and die in war. Though Robison looks young for his age, visually it becomes an entirely different message with a middle-aged man—a reflective message, sadder, but different.
For all the joy that “Hair” radiates, reality poking its nose into these moments makes the frantic “live life as much as you can, while you can” attitude of the ‘60s palpable. The draft is coming for these young men: They know it, and their women know it. None of them can do anything to stop it. The famous finale of “Let the Sunshine In,” as each tribe member pays their respects to Claude’s corpse, ends with Caitlin Becka’s moment of bidding farewell to the father of her unborn child. One would have to be made of stone not to be moved. Amy Smith’s voice during the final chorus while on night patrol in Vietnam haunts. It’s there, it’s real, and it hurts. The adults stayed home to hide while children were sent off to die in horror. No wonder the equal and opposite reaction was their frantic refusal to play by society’s rules.
The design team clearly aspires to make the lush, lovely, sensual world of the flower children bloom. From the East Side water tower projection on the back wall, to the multilevel quasi-Washington Square Park, Terry Collins’ set is gritty, spacious and designed to both bring together and push away the tribe. Filled with visual stimulation, including a beautiful VW bus funked out with graffiti and a mural, it is really evocative and multifunctional. Add to that Dallas LaFon’s rock ‘n’ roll lighting design, and it is a show of psychedelic eye candy.
And the music? It rocks! But it’s also haunting and evocative. Ito and her band bring out not just the overt drama and power of ‘60s rock, they dig deep to find the compositional elements that are quite beautiful, too. The score contains a lot of the standard musical-theatre elements made popular by Rodgers and Hammerstien (among many others): individual musical themes for each of the principal characters that weave and evolve, depending upon with whom they are interacting. The cast signs the score with power, sensitivity and humor. The band is onstage adding to the rock-concert feel. Musically, this is a home run.
Does “Hair” hold up? Or has it just become an anachronistic oddity? Personally I long for the day of the second: when a solid production like this can go up but not remind us that we are still trying to resolve the issues of racism, sexism, endless war, criminalization of recreational drugs, sexual liberation and the right to the pursuit of happiness. It really is time to “Let the Sunshine In.”
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Thurs.-Sun., Jan. 8-17, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.