Hair

By Philip Pearce

ON THIS FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY of its Broadway premiere, Hair tends to be valued in theatrical circles as an important milestone in the history of American musical theater. It burst onto the  mid-sixties scene just as a rebellious youth subculture were looking into the stratosphere and deciding that an alignment of seven stars, moons and planets that hadn’t happened for centuries marked the birth of a new era of free sex, world peace and psychedelic creativity. They called it “The Age of Aquarius” and the phrase became the title of the opening number of a show theater historians now view as a musical embodiment of hippie life and philosophy.       

Some excited opening night patrons at Western Stage’s new version seemed to take that familiar historic attitude. Nostalgic recollections of past viewings of the play and the movie floated around the lobby. And for those of us who were either too young or too otherwise engaged to remember those past theatrical landmarks? Well, the current version is worth watching: slick, perfectly cast, it moves fast and hardly shows its age at all.  

Composer Galt MacDermot and lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado are credited with inventing the modern rock musical format. Later examples of the genre, from Jesus Christ Superstar to Hamilton use the rock musical pattern to tell detailed, complicated  stories. By contrast, Hair has a plot so minimalist it virtually drowns in a tsunami of song and dance. All that really happens is that hero Claude’s fellow Manhattan hippies burn their draft cards, driver’s licenses and other symbols of American commerce and militarism. But Claude only burns his library card, hangs onto his draft card and wonders about the orders he’s just received to report for duty in the Vietnam War. He wavers and havers but ends up in uniform. Instead of using this story line, paper thin as it is, as structure on which to hang songs that forward plot or show character development, Hair’s musical numbers pop up pleasingly, enough but in no obvious order. They just happen.

Does it matter? The script and its embodiment on the Hartnell Main Stage invite you to hang loose when it comes to slick dramaturgy or logical conflicts between some good-guy protagonist and a bad opponent. Claude’s enemy is the whole ‘60s political/social establishment. And that’s an inchoate enough concept to justify any amount of generalized pipe-dream song and dance.

Director/choreographer Lorenzo Aragon and music director Don Dally have gathered a talented team of musicians and some singer/actors so stuck into the process that they won’t stay put behind the proscenium arch. Before and throughout the show, members of the cast hop down and confront us patrons, cajoling our support for their musical offerings, pleading for help in finding lost loved ones and just sending up sporadic rockets of energy. 

This new Hair is faithful to the script’s emphasis on racial diversity. In the Caucasian corner, rangy and flexible Daniel LaJune has an appealing caught-in-the-headlights attitude that’s a perfect fit with the pacifist anxieties and acid dropping hallucinations of Claude. As his androgynous roommate Berger, Colin St John explodes with the unpredictability of a guy willing to make active love to whoever’s available anytime, anywhere, any gender. By contrast, the single-minded obsession of an even weirder white tribesman named Woof (Joshua Reeves) is simply and somehow to climb into bed with Mick Jagger.  

Key African Americans include the effervescent James (Pete) Russell as black tribal leader named Hud, and the delightful, golden-voiced Symphonie Constant as a winsome gal named Dionne who ends up in a racial pageant wearing a stovepipe hat and black beard in the role of Abe Lincoln. Shaking his Afro hairdo, Russell does a perceptive Spike Lee style number (“Colored Spade” ) about black stereotypes and offers an apt summary of the Vietnam War as “White people sending black people to kill yellow people.” And then there’s gorgeous ballet trained Asian Malia Machado moving like a sparkly Aquarian planet through the big ensemble numbers. 

Two delectable trio numbers first celebrate three white girls’ passion for “Black Boys” then shift to a Supremes-style threesome singing the praises of “White Boys.”

It’s a big, exciting and unpredictable mix of sixties “Drop Acid Not Bombs,” protests and psychedelic love-ins labeled “Make Love Not War.”  Fifty years on, in a world that’s been through the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and NFL players giving the knee to the National Anthem, Hair seems as un-historically relevant as ever. 

It continues on weekends through September 1st.