One of the mantras of the younger generation of the ’60s was not to trust anyone over 30. Hmmm. When “Hair” premiered in 1968, composer Galt McDermott was pushing 40, and writers Gerome Ragni & James Rado were in their mid-30s.
Actually, their “advanced” ages may have led them to make wise artistic choices, ones that have helped this long-running Broadway musical, now in a thoroughly exuberant production at Home Made Theater, to have legs. While speaking truth to power is the message at the heart of the show, the script also reminds us how uncertain and vulnerable young truth-tellers are. Indeed, they make it up as they go along, and sometimes their inconsistencies are amusing and endearing. The script is, therefore, richer for the complexity of its vision.
The show tackles preoccupations of the young in any era: drugs, free love, physical appearance, sexual orientation, race relations, and life’s purpose. But these familiar developmental issues were made even more challenging against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, an event that drives much of the show’s action. Claude (Chris Thomas) and best bud Berger (Zack Bissell), modeled on Ragni & Rado, approach the draft in different ways. Claude is reluctant to burn his draft card, whereas Berger and the other young men in the tribe gleefully do so. Berger would rather turn on, tune in, and drop out, but Claude has the disapproving voices of his parents (Brigitta Giulianelli and Erik Searles) in his ears. He likes dope, be-ins, and communal living, but …
You know many of the songs, of course, and in the context of the show, with staging and choreography, they are powerful — not elevator music. Director Steve Coats, musical director Richard Cherry, and choreographer Rebecca Marzalek-Kelly put the 16 multi-talented performers to work on the familiar “Aquarius,” “Hair,” and “Let the Sun Shine In,” and the cast also delivers on the less well-known “I Got Life” and the military sequence in Act II.
The technical values at HMT remain high: the lighting and the costuming are exemplary. My chief concern with the production — and it’s a major one in a musical — is sound balance. At Saturday’s performance, the hardworking actors upstage on “Black Boys” and “White Boys,” for example, could barely be heard over the band; indeed, lyrics here and there throughout the show were often lost because the actors’ mics were not cranked up enough or the band’s system was. (No rap on the five-piece band itself, by the way: a hot bunch!)
Marc Andrzejewski has fun sending up anthropologist Margaret Mead; Sara Curtis, as Crissy, sweetly delivers “Frank Mills”; Kristie Wortman reveals Sheila’s anguish in “Easy to Be Hard”; and Emma Ayres and Morgan Przekurat mine the irony in “What a Piece of Work Is Man.”
It takes a special kind of performer to break the fourth wall and massage the audience. Bissell is such a performer. Bespectacled, long-haired, and hairy-bellied, his Berger flies around the stage looking for one kind of high after another, amused and amusing. Free spirit? You bet. And despite Bissell’s disclaimer in Bill Buell’s “Gazette” preview that, in real life, he’s really more like the more conservative Claude — well, that’s what great acting is about. Terrific voice, too.
Finally, Chris Thomas as Claude. Flushing-born Claude gives the show its emotional arc, appearing first as a hairy wannabe musician of the British invasion and last as a crewcut American casualty of another invasion. Thomas brings passionate singing and energetic dancing to his depiction of a searching young man — full of enthusiasm here, doubt there. A brilliant, three-dimensional performance.
Interestingly, I’ve seen two shows this weekend about American history, “Ragtime” and “Hair.” Both remind us of where we’ve come from and how we think about where we’re going.
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