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A CurtainUp Review
HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

Hair in Philadelphia
(L) Thom Miller ( Berger), (R) Ashley Robinson ( Claude)
(Photo: Mark Garvin)
HAIR's 1967 premiere at Joseph Papp's Public Theater was unassuming and zestful, according to John Simon, writing at the time. Cast with unknowns, it made its mark on Music Theater. In 1968 this 60s youth rebellion, repackaged and pumped up, arrived on Broadway like a jolt of badly needed oxygen. When Milos Forman's tepid movie version was released in 1979 HAIR was already over a decade old.

Inevitably, the once controversial rock musical has become nostalgic; the once daring subjects have become tame. The Prince Music Theater's Associate Artistic Director Richard M. Parison, Jr.'s idea was to take a fresh look at the material. Close in spirit to the Broadway version, with a similar songlist, his new take is not particularly fresh. Still, it is more appealing than the NY City Center Encores performance of May 2001, in which less energized actors spent a good deal of time standing downstage in a row.

The Prince production, like the original show, employs essentially unknown actors, although it would benefit from the skills of a more experienced cast, who could offer the needed wattage. In the actor/singer department, with a few notable exceptions, we could easily be watching a well designed college show.

The Fifth Dimension's 1969 hit recording of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In", which was reprised for a new generation in the 2004 movie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, sets up high expectations for the rendition of HAIR's iconic opening number. The strains and lyrics of "Aquarius" evoke the spirit and magic of the hippie movement in the 60s:

When the moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

But this performance of "Aquarius" fails to soar and it can't quite take us where we need to go. A well performed number, "Sodomy, "once funny, offensive and brash is now funny and cute.

With Gerome Ragni & James Rado's clever lyrics and Galt MacDermot's delicious music, HAIR always approached its portrayal of the sixties culture through an emphasis on the parts rather than the whole. It is about the songs. Here a very assured Eric Ebbenga directs the band, Cowboy Diplomacy, from his keyboard. Although the singing is not always as strong as it might be, it's good to hear the songs, and the first-rate band never fails to supply full bodied music, pizzazz, musical leadership, and support to bolster the cast.

The songs have just about enough book woven through them to hold together on stage. The story concerns the beginnings of political activism in a hippie community, the tribe. Issues of race and discrimination, peace and war—Viet Nam and the draft, drugs, air pollution and the sexual revolution waft through the libretto, and the central character, Claude, must report to the Army "Abduction Center." Ultimately, Claude, unable to burn his draft card, pays the consequences. Expect to see more of Ashley Robinson, who plays Claude. Thom Miller (Berger) and Rahsaan Kerns (Hud) also show marked style, ability, and attitude.

Some songs, and "Easy to Be Hard" comes to mind, require blatantly trumped up reasons to be sung at all. Like many fellow cast members, talented Kathryn M. Lyles (Sheila), who sings this song, does not yet have the developed skills to do justice to the material. DaVine Joy Randolph (tribe), however, does hit that high note at the end of a very satisfying rendition of "Initials".

This particular show is set in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, a fact that I would not have guessed, but learned from the program. Despite nice dance choreography, the group's activities in Act 1 appear stagey and provide an overly simplistic view of sixties culture, even for a musical. But things improve as the work becomes more abstract. Although Act 1 has more of the best songs, Act 2 is far more theatrical. No longer showing hippies hanging around in awkward, uneasy arrangements, there is more agenda to be covered and things heat up and tighten up. Dramatic lighting highlights scenes of altered consciousness. Slowed scenes of greenish-lit, stoned young people are followed by fast paced and hallucinatory Southeast Asian episodes, and scenes with large puppet heads, projected titles and colors. Overall the use of color in lighting and costumes in both acts is inspired. The subdued hues of the "regular" costumes are replaced at the end of the first act by vivid reds, oranges, and yellows. Lighting, set, and color come into their own in Act 2.

Treatment of the scattered nudity as the lights go down at the end of the first act reflects the original Broadway production's handling of nakedness at the dawn of a newly liberated age — it was brief, optional, and slightly coy, as it still is in this show. It's just not shocking anymore. HAIR in 1967 was a love-in and musical protest, a shouted and sung reaction to political conditions. It is significant that the work represented its own generation. HAIR in 2007 comes across not as a fresh, new take, but as a tribute or reenactment by well-meaning young people who grew up in a different world and can never truly understand the 60s. The show must sink or swim on its own merits, though, and some of the young cast members need water wings.

Make love not war always is an appropriate message. In common with the 60s, we have an unpopular administration in Washington and a war that most want out of. Still HAIR doesn't speak for our times. What would a musical have to be today to capture our prevailing mood and spirit? These days the zeitgeist is not a flower child ethos. At the end with "The Flesh Failures", aka "Let the sun shine in", I hoped the company would find another gear to wrap it up and take us to a groovy place. It almost happened.

HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
Book & Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado
Music by Galt MacDermot
Directed by Richard M. Parison, Jr.
Music Director: Eric Ebbenga
Choreography: Karen Getz

Cast: Matthew F. Burrow, Ari Butler, Laura Catlaw, Jaime Cepero III, Nikki Curmaci, Lindsey Gordon, Elizabeth Gross, Gabrielle Hurtt, Rahsaan Kerns, Kathryn M. Lyles, Kalia Lynne, Thom Miller, Andre Darnell Myers, Michael Ponte, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Ashley Robinson, Jonathan Shade, Alyse Wojciechowski
Costume Design: Mary Folino; Hair & wig design: Jon Carter
Lighting Design: Shelley Hicklin
Sound Design: Otts Munderloh
Band: Cowboy Diplomacy: Eric Ebbenga, Nicholas Cheng, Jonathan Rees, Bernard McKenna, Wiley Griffin, Todd F. Erk, Charles L. Patierno
Puppets by Spiral Q Puppet Theatre
Running time 2 hrs 30 mins including one 15 min intermission 05/26/07- 06/17/07, Opening 06/02/07
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 06/02 performance
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Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.

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