Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2005
RUN EXTENDED IN PITTSFIELD AUGUST 17-21 !
“Hair simply could not have existed ten years ago, and it is conceivable that it could mystify audiences ten years from now, but it does catch, and quite successfully, one of the many moods and aspects of life in [New York] city in 1967.”
- Edith Oliver in her New Yorker review of the original off-Broadway production of “Hair”, November 2, 1967
I was born in 1957. Thus when Hair opened at Joe Papp’s new Public Theatre in October of 1967, I was ten and a half. I open this review with the confession that I was too young in the late 1960’s to have been a part of the social upheaval represented in Hair. I was old enough to fully understand what was happening in the world, but I was still a child, and, frankly, the unrest scared me. It was scary! People were assassinated, cities were burning, by the time I entered high school I had lost friends to drugs. The 1960’s have recently been trendily revived and our children ask me and my husband, ten years my senior who barely escaped a stint in Vietnam, what it was like and we say “You don’t want to know!”
Hair, which was actually created before very worst of the 1960’s tumult, is certainly not an accurate representation of reality, no musical is. In an apt comparison Michael Smith in his 1967 Village Voice review of the original off-Broadway production at the Public wrote: “[Hair] says less about hippies than West Side Story did about Puerto Rican gangs.”
Even at the time of its success off-Broadway in 1967 and on Broadway from 1968-1972 Hair was considered a sanitized and crassly commercial version of reality. So it is no wonder that we look at it now, nearly forty years later, and wax deeply nostalgic. Here we have the past as we wish it were – happy, tuneful, innocuous, fake. No one dies, no one even really gets cross in Hair. Its all about free love and peace and staying drugged into oblivion so that the real world doesn’t intrude.
Now we know that free love and drugs kill you and that achieving and maintaining peace is a war unto itself. But for two hours we can listen to the superb cast at Barrington Stage belt out Galt MacDermot’s rousing tunes and Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s raw and funky lyrics and it all seems possible again. One of the most poignant moments was at the curtain calls, when cast members started holding their hands up in the two-fingered V of peace and many in the audience responded in kind because they wanted so badly for them to be kindred spirits in the deep desire for peace, rather than just actors on the stage entertaining them with nostalgic gestures. I saw the surprise in some of the actors’ eyes at the fervent response from across the footlights, and realized that for these young performers Hair was as cozily nostalgic as Grease or The Boyfriend.
What Barrington Stage is presenting is billed as a semi-staged concert version, which translates into “no nudity.” There was never much of a plot to Hair and this version gives you about as much as is necessary to hang the songs on and make it feel like a theatrical event instead of a concert. You get all of the music, beautifully performed, and little of the shock value that originally accompanied the show. Today we are absolutely immune to being shocked by the F word and the S word and all those other four-letter wonders that constitute the bulk of some people’s vocabulary these days. We are also used to jabs at organized religion and government. The infamous nude scene at the end of Act I, added for the Broadway production, is scarcely missed.
Director and choreographer Bill Castellino keeps the action moving rapidly from song to song. Whether or not Galt MacDermot’s score is good music, it is music that by now is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. The cast performs it with the reverence due old standards and the audience embraces it as an old friend.
The floor of the Mahaiwe was literally rocking as people tapped their feet. I believe in the 1960’s we would have been invited to dance in the aisles, and we probably could have if we weren’t living in the oh-so-polite first decade of the 21st century. The couple in front of me embraced and exchanged meaningful glances during certain numbers. My companion and I mouthed all the words. It is pretty embarrassing to admit that you know lyrics like the chorus to Good Morning, Starshine by heart. All together now:
gliddy glub gloopy
nibby nabby noopy
la la la - lo lo
sabba sibbi sabba
nooby aba naba
lee lee - lo lo
tooby ooby wala
nooby aba naba
early morning singing song
(This is the kind of thing that drives my 22 and 16 year old sons crazy.)
For my companion, who is ten years my senior and began her graduate studies at Yale in the late 1960’s, there was a visceral reaction to the music. It reminded her of awful times, of passionate feelings, of senseless battles over ridiculous issues like the length of your hair or your skirt when people were dying in Vietnam and in Watts.
The very talented cast assembled by Barrington Stage is way too young to have any real connection to the events and ideas they’re singing about. I have not singled them out by name because they are all uniformly good. They are also the cleanest bunch of hippies I ever clapped eyes on. I was struck that in his New York Times review of the 1968 Broadway production Clive Barnes assured his readers that the cast bathed. This was important information because real hippies didn’t, and therefore were not people you wanted to be confined at close quarters in a theatre with for long periods of time. This cast not only bathes, they floss.
I was disappointed that none of the guys really sported long hair! (Ever heard of wigs?) Everyone shook their well coiffed locks vigorously during the title number to try to make up in volume what they lacked in length, to little effect. The costumes, designed by Guy Lee Bailey, looked like they came direct from the mall. It is easy these days to find 1960’s style clothes, but difficult to really replicate the look, which was based as much on filth and grime as it was on fashion. Much effort went in to using authentic 1960’s technology like handheld mikes and a slide projector for the sound and “special effects”, and similar effort could have been made on the costumes.
“Hair is supposed to be performed on a bare stage, and set designer Brian Prather has complied. The brick back wall of the Mahaiwe is in clear view, and it makes a very handsome backdrop to the metal scaffolding Prather has placed center stage. In the center of this nestles the four-piece band and the rest is left free for member of The Tribe to clamber and lounge on. It reminded me strongly of Ming Cho Lee’s set for the Broadway production of another Galt MacDermot musical Two Gentlemen of Verona. Lee designed the original off-Broadway sets for Hair.
I usually keep politics out of my reviews, but when faced with a piece as politically biased as Hair it is hard to ignore the obvious parallels between the political situations then and now. And impossible to ignore the fact that the same generation that got us out of Vietnam has gotten us in to the current war in Iraq. When Denise Summerford as Sheila Franklin begins the chant:
What do we want?
When do we want it?
…it is hard not to take that cry out into the streets because whether you are on the right or the left, in a red state or a blue one, no one wants the unnecessary death and suffering that war brings.
I had a wonderful time at Hair and so did the audience I saw it with. There is no doubt that, at this moment in time, Barrington Stage is the best and brightest theatre company in Berkshire County and that its productions just sparkle with talent and joie de vivre. Hair is the talk of the county and this production has only a brief run at the Mahaiwe and then at the Berkshire Music Hall. I imagine it will sell out quickly so book tickets NOW. Hair is simultaneously great entertainment and an excellent way to engage young people in a dialogue about how times have changed in the past forty years – what has been accomplished and what still lies ahead for their generation to tackle.
The Barrington Stage Company Stage II semi-staged concert version of Hair runs through August 7 at the Mahaiwe Theatre in downtown Great Barrington, MA, and then moves to the Berkshire Music Hall in Pittsfield, MA for a run from August 10-17 & 17-21. The show runs two hours with one intermission. There are lots of four-letter words and drug use is constantly talked about and glorified, but basically there's not much in Hair that kids don't see in a PG-13 movie these days. I think youngsters 13 and up will have a ball. Call the box office 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005