–Sheila and Trio from Hair The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
The question is…what do YOU believe in? Aren’t we all on a soul-searching journey? It’s a fact of human life, whether we like it or not. True peace comes from how willing and able we are to look at reality and accept what our lives have set before us. For many, society’s pressures pushes them to journey down the path of collective thinking—the one of least resistance. For others, it’s simply impossible to so such a thing.
I had the opportunity to check-out the Wednesday, March 12 preview of the current Broadway revival of McDermot/Ragni/Rado’s Hair The American Tribal Love Rock Musical. On a personal level, this production inspired me and reminded me of the importance of individuality and taking that road less traveled—the harder one, that oft is filled with pain. The best part of journeying off the highway onto those dirt roads is that with each turn and narrowing of the road, you learn something new. When you find your way back to the highway, you’re glad you did it, and without a map no less!
This production of Hair makes its journey from last year’s Public Theater Shakespeare Festival in Central Park to a Broadway opening on March 31. This move almost exactly mirrors the show’s original progression back in 1967, when Hair moved from Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival to Broadway via a short run at the Cheetah discotheque. It was a hit back then, and this thoughtful and beautifully staged new revival will undoubtedly become the Hair that new generations will come to rave about for years to come.
Most of us are taught, from a very early age that everything that we do in life requires a certain amount of personal responsibility. It’s nice when it seems like it isn’t there (we have definitely seen a lot of that prior to this new presidential administration), but it’s natural law. The challenge is finding a balance that lets us be ourselves as long as, in the immortal words of Hair‘s endearing “Margaret Mead,” we don’t hurt anyone else in the process. Hair the American Tribal Love Rock Musical, through all of its stylized depictions of sex, drugs and radicalness towards mainstream America of the 1960s, even today, begs us to ask ourselves the question “Where are we going?” and helps us understand the price of straying from the path.
A product of the late 60s, I’ve had the opportunity to see Hair twice—once in 1978 and again in 1989. Both productions were well-staged, uplifting, and filled with glorious Technicolor musical numbers people have come to expect from Hair. Of course the current Broadway revival is all of these things and more, but it really left me with something different this time around. Throughout the performance, and afterwards as I made my way down 45th Street, I found myself overwhelmed by emotion. That night, I discovered a Hair that really resonates with me, where I am now in my life now, and the way the world is around me. What struck me most is the irony that in 1967, one could never have imagined an African-American President in in the White House. And now, all of that has changed, proving that we can move forward with hope, in spite of all the seeming discord in the world. The song “Colored Spade,” skillfully performed by Darius Nichols, takes on a whole new, almost prideful mimickry “ha, we showed you!” tone.
As I watched the cast interact onstage—outfitted in peasant shirts, Afros and skinny jeans—I mentally noted to myself that these kids, who I was being asked to accept as late 1960s archetypes, were, in fact no different than the kids you see today traipsing through Washington Square Park or the East Village (minus the iPods, laptops and designer duds!) It’s funny how, though we have advanced technically as a culture, we’re still figuring out how to connect with one another. The only difference between the hippie-esque kids today and their retro counterparts is that real hippies knew true human connection (With the advent of texting, email and cellphones, people today are kept remarkably isolated.). Except for all the people in the Obama camp last year, isn’t it obvious we’ve lost our way from the tribe? That’s the beauty of Hair–We can forget our troubles and make love not war for a couple of hours. The good news is there are no STDs involved and you won’t find a stranger in your bed the next morning!
The tribal love of the 60s meant that two men could have a love for one another that transcends sexuality. In Hair, we see this kind of relationship established between “Berger” (Will Swenson) and “Claude” (Gavin Creel). While I really enjoyed the overall arc of the show, I preferred to focus on the small things and the relationship-building onstage. One of the most poignant and beautiful theatrical conventions in the show took place when Berger and Claude caresss one another’s hair in a subtle manner while hanging out with the tribe. It was as brave and inspiring as it was erotic.
It would be hard to imagine an actor better than Swenson to play Berger. He brings a solid understanding of the character and a natural physicality to the role that makes him even more sexy when he’s dancing as when he is swaggering around the stage in more dramatic scenes. His Berger is everything to everyone and that is what makes him incredibly attractive onstage. He is the guy who gets to do and say everything that everyone else would like to but doesn’t out of fear. Swenson’s Berger is fully fearless, and is reminiscent of Billy Crudup, but taller, sexier, and beefier. Swenson gives his Berger the strongest of backbones and shows the audience enough vulnerability that it is easy to both love and judge his inability to be responsible. We see, however, that he is equally good at being Peter Pan as he is at being a friend. That said, he’s clearly incapable of following through with love for any one person for very long.
Contrastingly, Creel’s less sexy portrayal of Claude adds an interesting element to the show. Creel’s all-American babyface outlined by what are clearly, unreal locks of long hair, hint that he is not what he appears to be. Creel, though an unlikely Claude, possesses the perfect amount of rebelliousness and sweetness to make the role believable–the kind that would make Sheila drawn to him on many levels. He is skillful at making the audience believe that the show might possibly have an alternate ending. Ultimately, though, the burning turmoil within him causes him to be the sacrificial lamb that makes Hair the true tragedy that it was intended to be.
Delightful doesn’t amply describe the cast as a whole. Of course, director, Diane Paulus has assembled, not just an armful of candy, but a full-bodied cast of gorgeous proportions, making “Aquarius,” the show’s opener more like a cruising line at a gay bar than a musical number. That’s not so bothersome, mind you, since it helps guide the audience harmlessly and willingly into the show’s sensual, free loving tribal den from the get go.
Only by assembling a cast of truly likeable and sympathetic characters could the audience willingly suspend disbelief to accept and fall in love with a pregnant, pot-smoking and drug tripping “Jeanie,” brilliantly played by Kacie Sheik. All the while adoring her, though, in the back of my mind, I kept flashing forward to speculate how her child might have turned out!
Caissie Levy is a very interesting choice for Sheila. While she possesses the clean-cut look of a typical privileged suburban Long Island/New Jersey teenager with no substance, from the moment she opens her mouth to sing “I Believe in Love” you understand that there is so much more depth to her character than meets the eye. With a lovely voice and a clear understanding of what she is singing, Levy is delightful to watch. It’s easy to feel for her as she is both smothered and pushed away by Berger, the man she knows is bad for her, but whose magneticism is too irresistible.
While Sasha Allen “Dionne”) has a gorgeous voice and a physical beauty in the vein of singer/actress Brandi, Allen lacks an obvious connection to the material. Even when the staging required her to interact amidst the audience, there was a hesitancy to make eye contact with anyone (I was in the 15th row). While clearly an accomplished singer, having sung with the likes of Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, Usher, Babyface and more, Allen’s acting chops lack in comparison to those of her co-stars.
Acting kudos go to standout performer Allison Case, who is well cast as “Crissy.” Her rendition of “Frank Mills” is simple, flawless and totally memorable. Bryce Ryness, one of the biggest hotties of the show, is very enjoyable as “Woof,” a sexually confused young man who is obsessed with making love to Mick Jagger. Megan Lawrence and Andrew Kober play various characters, including those well beyond their years, with believability and strong comic timing.
Perhaps the best thing about seeing Hair as an adult, was having the emotional maturity to see beyond the surface and ask questions about contemporary society and myself: “Am I being the best citizen I can be?” “Am I fully present in my life? “What’s my legacy?” Hair has left an indelible legacy on this world. This production of Hair finds its way back to the highway that is Broadway with glorious sunshine reminding us that what goes around, really does come around..and sometimes it’s even better! Visit http://www.hairbroadway.com/ for more information.