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by Michael L. Quintos
Oh, those kooky kids in the 1960's. While some may say that the anarchy and rebellion that was incited by this groovy generation's counter-culture are perhaps considerably less threatening than what kids today are capable of bringing, they still managed, quite convincingly, to scare the crap out of their old-fashioned parents and even society at large.
But, alas, these passionate, outspoken kids all just needed someone to listen to them, and that their opinions—however avant garde they may be—is worth considering seriously. Really, all they wanted was to be unfettered in becoming their authentic selves, do away with "the Man's" oppressive status quo, and maybe even enjoy a few carnal and herbal pleasures along the way.
Well, leave it to Art to give them a voice. In 1967, a daring, thought-provoking theatrical enterprise was set about to spotlight these very issues in, of all things, an off-Broadway rock musical, featuring music by Galt MacDermot and a book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni. First produced at Joe Papp's Public Theater, their groundbreaking, controversial hit not only created a new identity for a theatrical musical, it also gave voice to a progressive movement that caused quite a stir within the conservative community. A year later, the show would become a Broadway phenomenon. This song celebration of hippie subculture and the sexual revolution is known as HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, which recently spawned an overwhelmingly lauded Broadway revival.
Directed with great care and blissful appeal by Diane Paulus, this spiritually buoyant new touring production of the 2009 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical revival, HAIR—now performing a strictly-limited three-week engagement at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through January 23—revels in its naughty, raucous fun and its sonically-adventurous musical soundtrack. A delightful hybrid of vaudeville high-jinks, rock concert, art house exhibition, and curiosity theater, this genuinely entertaining show rightly focuses less on its unstructured storyline, but more in its likable cast of characters and the celebratory, almost party-like atmosphere they share with us through song.
From the start of the soulfully gorgeous "Aquarius," and through a rapid-fire succession of humorous, outlandish rock ditties that include odes to "Sodomy" and "Hashish," these beautiful creatures' main motivation is to entertain its audience, while dropping a bit of peace, love and knowledge in our laps. The show asks us to care about these young people, and quite easily over the course of the show, we do. Probably the most interactive, audience-participatory version of this musical I have ever seen, the theater setting morphs away, as if the audience is instead inside this "Be-In" with them.
While most of the show's action happens on stage, more often times than not, the actors routinely rush down the aisles to share the jubilation with audience members. It's as if we have been invited into these young people's inner sanctum with open arms—as either curious observers or pro-hippie supporters. And, wouldn't you know it, the lively, extremely talented cast does a great job of rousing us to join in the infectious merriment of it all. Even at Thursday's celebrity-filled opening night audience, the giddy cheers and screams flew freely.
Like any merry band of misfits, they have irresistibly charismatic people in their center. Their ringleader in this techni-colorful circus tent is Berger (the athletic, terrific Steel Burkhart), a fun-loving boy-child on the cusp of manhood that lives solely for all the pleasures in life, consequences and responsibilities be damned. He has a penchant for weed, sex, and dropping "trou" so he can run around in nothing but his sueded-fringe undies (well, just briefly). Naturally, it is pointless to resist his charms.
Berger's best buddy is Claude (the marvelous Paris Remillard), a gentle, well-meaning dreamer who wishes to one day uproot himself from his seemingly unremarkable existence in Flushing, Queens to pursue a filmmaking career. So disenchanted with his station in life, he make-believes he's from Manchester, England. His parents, unsurprisingly, want him to ditch the long hair and fulfill his army draft notice, much to the protestations of his anti-war, anti-government friends. Caught in a tug-of-war between facing responsibilities or facing a life of uncertainty (after all, being hippie won't pay the bills), Claude cannot decide which path to maturity to take, asking himself, "Where do I go? Follow my heart beat? Where do I go? Follow my head?"
The rest of their make-shift family, which they've dubbed "the Tribe," is a glorious mixture of genders, sexualities, ideologies, and ethnicities—so remarkably progressive and ahead of its time in the 60's. Among them: there's politically-active NYU student Shiela (Caren Lyn Tackett), adorable goofball Woof (Matt DeAngelis), pregnant flower child Jeanie (Kacie Sheik), Black Pride purveyor Hud (Darius Nichols), lovestruck Crissy (the sweet-voiced Kaitlin Kiyan), and soulful central diva Dionne (the incredible Phyre Hawkins). (Continues on Page 2)
As the Tribe sing their way from one topsy-turvey diatribe to the next, the audience is treated to the manic, poetically-charged intensity of seemingly harmless youthful rebellion. Even sweet, little old lady Margaret Mead (played by the awesome Josh Lamon, in a great vaudevillian switcheroo) develops an understanding and affection for these long-haired ne'er-do-wells.
Unsurprisingly, the show's images of drug use and even brief nudity and overt sexuality fail to really shock, feeling almost nonchalantly there in the periphery—perhaps simply because today's modern audiences have been so desensitized by repeatedly seeing these images (or worse) in the mainstream media through the years. It is certainly the sign of the times not to be fazed by it all, but yet their presence still adds to the poignancy and power of this clever, satisfying update. Despite the age of HAIR's source material, this enjoyable revival feels like a polished gem, an antique refreshed and revitalized by current-day sensibilities and a brilliant, top-notch cast.
Burkhardt and Remillard are incredibly electric, sharing a combined rapport that infects the audience with their beaming smiles. Apart in solo moments, both actors are just as riveting—Burkhardt with his deliciously dirty sense of humor, and Remillard offering a heartfelt performance that becomes the show's true emotional tent pole. I especially loved hearing both Hawkins and Kiyan owning their excellent respective solos. As Woof, DeAngelis has managed to affectionately win over many of us with his tender, sweet portrayal of what could have been a run-of-the-mill sideline character. And, when finally singing all together, the ensemble literally raises the roof, lifting their beautiful, ethereal harmonies all the way to the upper echelons of the farther-most seat in the house. By the time the entire cast sings the finale of "Let the Sun Shine In," you're either teary with sorrow or singing along with shameless pride. What was once a wild, rambunctious party has become a tuneful, spiritual gathering for the soul.
Under Paulus' thoughtful revisionist's direction (with organic choreography by Karole Armitage), this HAIR revival really taps into its emotional heart, yet still manages to make it a swell, sincerely festive show. What could have been a misguided exercise in hippie nostalgia instead becomes an engaging and intelligent musical that is at once emotionally intense and unapologetically joyful.
Looks like Willow Smith isn't the only one happily whipping her hair back-and-forth in Los Angeles these days.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top Main: Paris Remillard (left) & Steel Burkhardt. Set-Top: Caren Lyn Tackett (left), Phyre Hawkins (center) & Kacie Sheik (right). Middle: Lawrence Stallings (left), Steel Burkhardt (center) & Matt DeAngelis. Bottom: Paris Remillard and cast.
Performances of the National Tour of HAIR: THE AMERICAN TRIBAL LOVE-ROCK MUSICAL at Pantages Theatre continue through January 23, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Show disclaimer: Please note, while many find this show suitable for young adults (13 and older), parental discretion is advised. There is a dimly lit 20-second scene with nudity that is non-sexual in nature. Children under the age of 5 will not be admitted to the theater.
Directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Karole Armitage, HAIR features a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot.
The HAIR National Tour is produced by The Public Theater (Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director; Andrew D. Hamingson, Executive Director), Nederlander Productions, Inc., Carl Moellenberg/Wenlarbar Productions, Rebecca Gold/Myla Lerner, Rick Costello, Joy Newman & David Schumeister, Paul G. Rice/Paul Bartz, John Pinckard, Terry Schnuck, Joey Parnes and by special arrangement with Elizabeth Ireland McCann.
Ticket prices start at $25 and can be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets.
The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit www.broadwayla.org or HAIR's official site at www.HairOnTour.com.
Following its engagement at the Pantages, HAIR moves next to The Orange County Performing Arts Center from January 25 - February 6, 2011.