With a message that should transcend time, a cast with boundless muscle and simmering with sex appeal, and a groundbreaking score that is the soundtrack for a generation or two, it would be great to say “Gee, your hair smells terrific.”
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Through May 8
HOW MUCH: $30–$60
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
But the current tour of “Hair” at Proctors, like that old ad slogan, is a little stale, tinged with an energetic whiff of nostalgia.
The original 1968 “Hair” grabbed the theatrical world by its roots by giving an unbridled, exuberant and pulsing voice to the contentious counterculture revolution. Using a series of vignettes wrapped around a traveling tribe of hippies, “Hair” captured an American life in the late 1960s where free love was encouraged, drugs were used to explore deep realms, and causes that affected us all were protested loudly instead of passively and silently accepted.
Something of a relic
At its first New York revival in 1977, the voice of the piece was muted as some of the causes, faded as battles, had been won. In the 2008 revival, currently winding up its tour at Proctors before heading back to Broadway for the summer, “Hair” comes off as a curiosity or relic.
For Gazette theater writer Bill Buell’s preview of this show, click here.
That fault lies in how the play was assembled. A true product of its time, “Hair” is part of the avant-garde “bear pit” theater of the 1960s — a loose, formless construct — where the message became more important that the characters. With the protest of the piece so firmly rooted in the 1960s (despite war being rather topical), it seems that the characters in “Hair” have little else to do but get high and preach (and sing) about life.
That’s not a complaint or an ethical problem — it is a dramatic one. Because the characters aren’t realistically drawn, we don’t connect to their drama and struggle, and the play cannot handle the time shift.
But the music isn’t
There is one thing that is not trapped in time, that still captures exuberance and rapture, and that hasn’t aged at all. The music in Hair is still terrific.
From the opening moments of “The Age of Aquarius” (wonderfully performed by Phrye Hawkins), to the uninhibited shout “I Got Life” (given a racing pulse by Paris Remillard) to the final scream of hope with “Let the Sunshine In,” the message and instruction to embrace the joy is as clear as crystal.
This cast does the score complete justice, despite a mumbled sound mix obscuring a portion of the lyrics. Good thing most of us know them all.
Steel Burkhardt’s puckish Berger appropriately titillates, stimulates and infuriates; Kacie Sheik’s Jennie gleefully creates a stoned Sandy Dennis, and Josh Lamon steals focus with a wonderfully drawn matron with a secret.
Director Diane Paulus takes Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s sparse “script” back to its roots, instructing her energetic and attractive tribe to let it all hang out and party like it’s 1969.
For all of the evening’s freedom and frolic, Paulus keeps the action tight and focused, never allowing a moment of hazy reflection to seep in and quash the high.
The second act’s drug-induced hallucination sequence, “Walking in Space” so often a victim of blurry, detached images, becomes something pointed, meaningful and transcendent under her guidance. Aggressive and spirited, each musical number, all dynamically choreographed by Karole Armitage, is taut and in your face, on your lap or crawling along the back of your seat and by the end of the evening you cannot help but get swept up with the electricity of the cast.
At one time, “Hair” was an answer, a theatrical reminder to wake up and take back your life, feed your soul and dance. That answer is still there, message less potent, but still there.