Fueled as much by meth as marijuana, the touring production of the '60s rock musical Hair blew into Seattle on Sunday, settling into a one-week run at The Paramount Theatre. It's a charged-up, raucous, and mostly groovy trip.
The original Hair, subtitled The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical was first produced in a six-week run in 1967 at the then-newly opened New York Public Theater, followed by a short run of performances at Cheetah, a New York night club. Finally, in 1968, it settled in for a long and hugely successful four-year run at the Biltmore Theatre, after much tweaking, new production team members, and an infusion of cash from backer Michael Butler, a wealthy anti-Vietnam War activist.
The current production at The Paramount had a successful run on Broadway before hitting the road in October. It emerged from a 40th-anniversary version presented by the New York Public Theater outdoors at Central Park's Delacorte Theater in 2008, greeted with such success that they decided to move it into a Broadway house where it won last year’s Tony for best revival of a musical.
The version seen at the Paramount is evidence both of the current state of Broadway musicals, touring or not, and the revolutionary nature of Hair, which addressed the attitudes of the fabled "flower power" youth culture that was emerging at the time of its creation.
Its free-form structure, eclectic musical score, colorful costumes and equally colorful language, ebullient choreography, and themes of free-love, drug use, racial equity, gender-bending, anti-war stances, eco-consciousness, and general revolt against social restrictions were all rolled into one joyful pop celebration that broke new ground in the American theater — even if experimentalists at the fringe had been already doing this for years. Rebellion, cursing, nudity, and uptight America on trial had now gone mainstream, like the parallel movement in the film world.
Hair has much going for it, not least of all the nostalgia trip for a public constituency of a certain age (count me in), and a young generation anxious to see what all the hoopla is about, perhaps desirous of finding a bit of themselves in the show’s portraits.
The work's enduring allure owes a great deal to its musical score of 40 numbers (an unusually large amount for this genre), some forgettable, many memorable, and several — like "Aquarius" and "Easy to be Hard" — now ensconced in the pantheon of American popular music. The lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado are especially fine, a poetic revelation of all that was concerning in the day.
Unfortunately, much of this treasure trove was overwhelmed by the amped-up sound system in The Paramount, which muddied the singers’ delivery and made supertitles something to be considered for the remainder of the show's run.
Equally amped up was the cast of 30 as the tribe of young people who gathered daily on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Racially mixed and all visually appealing they offer boundless energy on-stage as well as off, as the players made frequent forays into the main floor of seating, standing on chairs, dancing with patrons, greeting the paying customers and otherwise delighting most everyone in the audience except perhaps the shy or curmudgeonly.
Engaging as they were, one got the feeling that everyone was a little too manic, and instead of acting we got declaiming, as if director Diane Paulus believed that if the characters didn’t speak clearly and boldly and incessantly jump around a lot, we might not get it.
There is not much of a storyline in Hair, an intentional and effective choice in structure and form that was to influence many later shows, with the one real narrative stream being whether Claude, ably played by Paris Remillard, will go off to fight in Vietnam, a weighty decision faced by all young men who were draft-eligible at the time. The other male characters in Hair have protested and resisted the draft, and Claude's agonizing choice is one many young people and their families in the audiences of the late '60s and early '70s could surely identify with.
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